Family heirlooms are generally antiques or jewelry that have been passed down from one generation to the next. We cherish them because they make us feel connected to where we come from.

That blue porcelain water jug in your bedroom? It once belonged to your great-grandmother, who used to wash her face with it before running water was installed in her home. That grandfather clock in the dining room? It may have been one of the few possessions your grandparents brought with them from Europe.

Because we are so attached to heirlooms, the thought of losing them to your spouse in a divorce is worrying. However, whether or not that can happen will depend on when and under what circumstances you acquired it and how you maintained it afterward.

Like most states, New York generally regards any property acquired before your marriage as separate property, and not subject to division in a divorce. The law takes the same stand if the asset is an inheritance or gift given solely to you during the marriage. Most courts also tend to recognize the highly personal value of an heirloom and be reluctant to award it to your spouse or order it sold so that the proceeds can be divided, but that doesn’t mean that it could never happen.

How to protect your heirlooms

To prevent a cherished asset from becoming marital property, it is crucial that you don’t commingle it with marital funds in any way or allow your spouse to increase its value. Giving it to your spouse can only cause trouble: if you give them a wedding ring that has been in your family for generations, then you may struggle to get it back unless they return it voluntarily.

It’s surprising how easily personal property can become a marital asset. If your father leaves his childhood home to you in his will and you use marital funds to carry out some long-overdue renovations and landscaping, then your spouse now has a financial interest in the property. If you divorce, then you will have to compensate him or her for that investment if you want to keep the house.

In New York, there is a strong presumption that property acquired during the marriage or which increases in value during the marriage is part of the marital estate. As stated previously, courts tend to recognize the personal and sentimental value of heirlooms, but when they become commingled with marital property, the law always takes precedence over sentiment.

Contact a New York family law attorney

If you are facing divorce and concerned about how your family heirlooms will be handled when the marital estate is divided, then contact a New York family law attorney who can review how they were maintained during the marriage and recommend ways that you can protect it. Jayson Lutzky is a Bronx lawyer with over 36 years of legal experience. If you are dealing with a divorce, then be sure to contact an attorney. Mr. Lutzky offers free in-person initial consultations. You can reach his office at 718-514-6619.