It comes down to a lot of factors, but if you want to boil it down to a simple test, here it is: if it smells funny, then you’ve got a problem.
If the property is clearly your spouse’s, was always theirs, you never helped pay for it, and they’ve owned it for some time, then you do NOT have an ownership interest. However, if you bought it together, or if you’ve made all of the payments on it, or if you gifted it to her, then you’ve got an ownership problem.
When you file bankruptcy, your bankruptcy estate is created. This estate means all of your property, real, personal, and intangible. So if you own a home, a car, and have a right to receive a $5,000 tax refund, then all of these items go into your estate.
We try to exempt, or protect your property so that the bk trustee cannot take your estate property and sell it off to pay creditors. For example, in Utah, only $3,000 of your car’s value is protected. So if you own a car worth $10,000 free and clear, then only $3,000 is safe, and the bk trustee will take it and sell it off. He’ll give you $3,000 and use the rest to pay creditors (less his very healthy finder’s fee).
However, he can’t touch your spouse’s property. That being said, there are various degrees of ownership. If she’s owned her home for the past 10 years, and you only recently met and were married last year, then that home is hers, and the trustee won’t touch it. On the other hand, if you two bought the home 30 years ago, and you were the sole provider, then your money paid off that mortgage. You may not be on title, but you have an “equitable interest,” and there will be problems with the trustee.
Even worse, let’s say that you have a Ming vase that you inherited from your Aunt Mildred. It’s worth $80,000. Two weeks before filing bankruptcy, you “give” it to your wife. That doesn’t count! It’s a fraudulent transfer. The bk trustee will avoid the transfer, sell the vase, and pay your creditors. The shade of Aunt Mildred will be very displeased with you.
It’s all complicated and is usually figured out on a case by case basis. That’s why you want to meet with a bk attorney. Tell him everything. That way he can give you honest advice on how to protect your property (if you can).