By Joseph DiPiazza, Esq.
Frances Bean Cobain, daughter of the late Kurt Cobain, filed for divorce from her husband in March 2016. The couple was married for just under two years. Several news outlets have reported that Isaiah Silva, Cobain’s spouse, is seeking the guitar Kurt Cobain played on stage during Nirvana’s famed “MTV Unplugged” performance. Silva contends that Frances Bean gave him the Martin D-18E guitar as a wedding present. Frances Bean has denied giving Silva the guitar and is asking for it back. Frances included a request in her divorce petition (filed in the Los Angeles Superior Court) to deem her inheritance, which is a pre-marital asset, to be excluded from the martial property.
What would happen in New Jersey?
In New Jersey, generally speaking, most instances of inheritance are not subject to equitable distribution in a divorce case. For example, if a wife receives an inheritance as a result of her father’s passing, she is not required to share the inheritance with her husband. To maintain this exemption, however, certain restrictions are necessary. The most common mistake which causes the exempt inherited property to be subject to the equitable division of assets is when the inherited spouse commingles or transmutes the asset.
If an inherited house given to the wife is re-titled into both the wife and husband’s names, New Jersey courts have construed this as an inter-spousal gift, making the inheritance subject to equitable distribution. This act of gifting converts what would otherwise have been separate pre-marital property into marital property. See Perkins v. Perkins, 159 N.J. Super. 243 (App. Div. 1978). In addition, if the inherited asset (e.g. cash) is deposited into a joint banking account, or used to acquire something for the marriage, it is likely to be subject to equitable distribution.
Hypothetically, if Cobain’s divorce was occurring in New Jersey, Silva’s case would focus on proving that the guitar was indeed an inter-spousal gift. Considering the large estate of Frances’s father (various news outlets report the number as $450 million), it is not surprising that Silva is taking this position. It has also been reported that Silva is seeking a $300,000 yearly spousal support payment. There have been no reports of a prenuptial agreement between the parties.