The Ultimate Guide to Property Law in California Divorces

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The division of property and debts plays a significant role in divorce proceedings and is a leading cause of contention among spouses seeking divorce. Property isn’t just physical items where divorce law is concerned. Property can be tangible items like a house, car, or furniture, but it can also be non-physical assets like a bank account, pension, retirement account, stocks, and the like. Debts, on the other hand, are anything you owe, like a mortgage, student loans, car loans, and personal loans.

Figuring out what property is to be split and how it should be split can be a challenging task, but California does set forth a clear guideline with very limited exceptions. In California, generally speaking, any assets or debts acquired during the course of the marriage is said to be “community property”, making California a “community property” state, and these assets are split evenly. If you and your spouse come to a different agreement on how to split property, that will usually be honored, but a 50/50 split is the standard way that marital property is divided and that is what a judge will follow if they are asked to make decisions regarding property division/

Community Property vs. Separate Property

As mentioned above, California is a “community property” state. California law divides property into two categories: community property and separate property. Community property is anything new you owned or owed during the course of your marriage. California law looks at married couples as a “community”, and counts anything you earned while married, anything you bought with money you earned while married, and any debts acquired while married as community property. On the other hand, separate property is anything you owned or owed individually before you were married or after you were separated. 

In order to best determine what is and isn’t community property, you need to make note of the date you were married and the date you were separated. The date of separation isn’t the same as the date you were or will be formally divorced. Rather, it is the day you and your spouse let each other know, either by actions or in words, that the marriage was coming to an end. After that day, your actions and your spouse’s actions must have been consistent with wanting to end the marriage. For example, if you discussed divorce, then took a weekend apart and then decided to try to reconcile and moved back in together, that date when divorce was discussed would not be considered the date of separation, as the actions after the fact were not consistent with wanting to end the marriage. Most commonly, this date is the day that you and your spouse began living apart or the day that concrete plans for divorce were made. From the date of separation forward, anything new that you earned or bought, or any new loans are not considered community property. 

There are a few exceptions to this rule. Firstly, if you and your spouse lived outside California for any part of your marriage but ultimately moved to California, your property and debts acquired during that time are considered quasi-community property. As far as California divorce law is concerned, quasi-community property is still treated like community property, but it does have a different name. Secondly, property you acquired individually during the course of the marriage, like gifts or inheritance, is not considered community property unless it was specifically gifted to both spouses. So, for example, if you received an inheritance from your grandparent who passed away while you were married, that would be considered separate property unless it was specifically conveyed to both you and your spouse. Similarly, if your sibling gives you (and not you and your spouse), for example, a car as a birthday gift during the course of your marriage, that is also separate property. Lastly, the rules regarding student loans in California property division law can differ from the standard 50/50 rule on loans. Generally, a student loan taken out for education or training is viewed as separate property because the education you gained with it isn’t shared. Therefore, generally speaking, each spouse is considered individually responsible for the student loan, though if community property money was used to pay down that student loan, the other spouse may be entitled to reimbursement.

Generally speaking, couples have more community property than they realize, as any money contributed to individually-owned retirement plans, pension plans, or even life insurance policies during the course of the marriage is community property. Similarly, if a car was purchased during the course of the marriage with money earned while married, that car is community property even if it is only in one spouse’s name and even if the other spouse never drove it. Additionally, all debt incurred during a marriage is the responsibility of both spouses, even if it wasn’t in your name, and sometimes even if you didn’t even know it existed.

Sometimes the line between separate and community property can blur, and a property is part separate and part community, which is called comingling. In essence, comingling occurs when separate and community property get mixed together.

When to Talk to a Lawyer

In some cases, property division can be amicable and quite simple. However, that is not often the case. If you have one or more of the following complicating factors at play, it’s best to contact an experienced family law attorney to ensure that you are receiving your fair share of the property, especially before filing or signing any property agreements.

  • You used community (jointly-owned) money to pay down one or both spouses’ student loans.
  • You disagree about what to do with a significant asset you jointly own.
  • You have a lot of debt, or may be facing bankruptcy. 
  • You have signed a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.
  • Your spouse took out debt or made a large purchase without your knowledge.
  • If you or your spouse have a retirement plan or pension, especially if that plan or pension was initiated and partially funded before the marriage began.
  • There are significant concerns about comingling, and it is difficult for you to delineate separate and community property.

Facing a Divorce? Have Questions Regarding Community Property Law in California? Contact the Expert Attorneys at Roberts & Zatlin.

Divorce law in California is complex and difficult to navigate without experienced professionals guiding you through the process. The attorneys at Roberts & Zatlin know just how important it is to have a compassionate, skilled advocate on your side. With an entire practice dedicated to California family law and with a combined 35 years of experience, the attorneys at Roberts & Zatlin are ready to fight for you and your best interests. While the practice is based out of Temecula, California, our team serves the people of Temecula, Menifee, Hemet, Sun City, Lake Elsinore, Winchester, Wildomar, Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange County, Vista, San Diego, throughout the Inland Valley, and beyond. Contact us today for a free consultation and let our experts get started working for the best outcome for you.

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