California is a community property state. What does that mean?

Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP

When you got married, you probably didn’t care whether California was a community property or equitable distribution state. You figured you would remain married and would never need to know the difference.

Unfortunately, your relationship with your spouse is no longer what it used to be. Now, you are contemplating divorce, and you want to know more about what it means to live and end a marriage in a community property state.

The defining characteristics of community property

The law considers any property acquired or purchased during the marriage as legally owned equally by both parties regardless of whether the property is titled in one or both spouse’s names. Income, wages and earnings also fall under the definition of community property, which means that each spouse owns half of the other spouse’s earnings and income. However, if one spouse receives an inheritance or gift, it belongs to him or her alone and does not fall under community property.

The law also treats debts as community property. Therefore, the law considers you responsible for any debts your spouse incurred during the marriage, along with any joint debts. This means that if your spouse fails to pay a debt in his or her name, the creditor can come to you for payment.

The defining characteristics of separate property

Once you understand how the law defines community property, it may seem obvious that any property you owned prior to your marriage belongs to you alone. You will not need to divide this property in the divorce, but the court will more than likely require you to provide evidence that the property belongs to you and not the marital estate.

The tricky part of separate property, or at least a part of it, is that it could turn into community property if you used any of it to maintain your lifestyle while married.

What does this mean for your divorce?

Even though the law says that you are entitled to half the community property and owe half the community debts, it won’t necessarily end up that way in your divorce settlement or decree. Divorce proceedings are rarely so cut and dry that they provide a perfect 50/50 split of the marital estate to each spouse. In order to understand your rights and options when it comes to the division of your property and debts, you would be wise to consult with a California family law attorney.

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