The Houston 14th Court recently handed down a decision regarding the characterization of assets in a premarital agreement, distinguishing between a "bank" account and a "brokerage" account in determining the characterization of certain assets.  IMOMO McNelly, __SW3d__, No. 14-13-00281-CV,  (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.], no pet. h.) (05/15/2014).

Prior to Husband and Wife’s marriage, Husband owned and operated a business. Husband and Wife executed a premarital agreement in July 2008. The premarital agreement provided that separate property funds and proceeds from the sale of separate property would remain separate property but also provided that those funds and proceeds “may be deposited into any bank account styled in their joint names” and that such monies “shall become and remain community property.” The parties married later that same month. In September 2008 Husband sold his interest in the business for $1.3 million and later deposited $100,000 of the sale proceeds into two joint bank accounts and the remaining $1.2 million two separate joint brokerage accounts. Wife filed for divorce in 2010. Following the trial, the trial court found that Husband’s owned andoperated his business prior to the marriage, making his interest in the business Husband’s separate property.However, the trial court concluded that Husband converted all $1.3 million in his separate property proceeds from the sale of his business into community property by depositing the proceeds into joint accounts and comingling the proceeds with community funds. Husband appealed, arguing that the trial court divested him of his separate property when it characterized the $1.2 million deposited into joint “brokerage” accounts as community property.

The Court held, under the plain language of the premarital agreement, the couple clearly intended that the fruits of the business, such as the earnings that might result from the sale of the business, should remain Husband’s separate property. Resolution of the issue therefore turned on the meaning of “bank” in the premarital agreement.

Dictionaries generally define “bank” as a financial establishment for the deposit, loan, exchange, or issue of money and for the transmission of funds. In contrast, “broker” is defined as an agent who acts as an intermediary or negotiator, especially between prospective buyers and sellers; a person employed to make bargains and contracts between other persons in matters of trade, commerce, or navigation. According to the Houston Court, these definitions illustrate that banks and brokers are distinguishable, particularly with respect to the scope of their respective services; banks tend to offer a broader spectrum of financial services than brokerage firms. Additionally,federal and state statutory definitions, including those under the U.S. Code Title 15 (Commerce and Trade), the Texas Finance Code, and the Texas Business and Commercial Code, illustrate that banks and brokerage firms generally fall under distinct statutory and regulatory regimes. Finally, federal case law suggests that mere overlap in the services provided by a nonbanking entity, such as a brokerage firm, with the services provided by a bank does not transform the nonbanking entity into a bank.

In this case, the premarital agreement stated that any separate-property funds deposited into joint “bank” accounts would become community property. The contested $1.2 million was deposited into joint “brokerage” accounts, not joint “bank” accounts. Therefore, that $1.2 million did not become community property. Accordingly, the trial court erred when, based on its erroneous interpretion premarital agreement, it characterized as community property the $1.2 million from the sale of Husband’s separate property business.

This is a significant opinion because most people do not distinguish between bank accounts and brokerage accounts as a practical matter.  Both types of accounts are for the purpose of holding money.  But, lawyers who are drafting a premarital agreement should be aware of the distinction between the two types of accounts and counsel clients in the application of the premarital agreement accordingly.

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 30+ years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW for multiple years. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

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A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.