The simple answer is the inheritance belongs to the person who inherits it. It is their separate property. However, as with most things, this question is not as simple as it may seem.
Often inheritance comes in one form, say money, and is later used to purchase something else. Or, sometimes, it comes in the form of personal property. As an example, if your grandmother left you a piece of jewelry, that jewelry belongs to you and is your separate property. However, if you sell that jewelry and use the money to, for example, contribute toward a down-payment of a house purchased with your spouse - what happens then? Now the answer is not as simple.
During the course of a marriage, people often make choices as to how they want to use their resources, often focusing on the needs of their family or partnership. But, when it comes time to uncouple, they may rethink their prior choices. People may also change their intentions when facing a divorce.
If the inheritance was used to pay for living expenses, as example, that money is gone and unless you and your spouse agree otherwise, it would not be reimbursable.
If you take your inheritance and use it to buy something with your spouse, you may be able to ask for a reimbursement of that contribution--if you and your spouse can agree or if you can effectively "trace" the use of the inheritance through records, such as canceled checks, that show the trail of the inheritance. If you received an inheritance and you believe it was used to purchase something with your spouse during the marriage, the first step would be to review your records or obtain any records you don't have as soon as possible. This will help you better understand your concerns so that you can consider how best to approach this in the process of your divorce.
Lissa Rapoport is an attorney practicing in Marin County. You can learn more about her here: http://www.collaborativepracticemarin.org/members/Rapoport
Photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.