In Marriage of Davis, the Supreme Court of California was asked to decide the following question: can spouses truly be “living separate and apart” within the meaning of Family Code section 771(a) if they share the same residence? The Court, in a unanimous decision, held that spouses cannot be separated if they share the same residence.
In Davis, the parties seem to agree that their marriage was “over” sometime around June of 2006. However, they continued to reside together, for the sake of their children, until 2011. The wife contended that the date of separation was in 2006, while Husband, relying on the fact that wife did not move out until 2011, argued a date of separation in 2011.
The Court’s decision came down to statutory interpretation. The Court held that, on its face, the plain meaning of the term “living separate and apart” required a physical separation. To the extent there was some ambiguity in the statute, the Court noted that the term “living separate and apart” had not been altered in subsequent iterations of the statute since 1870. The Court also noted that, in 1870, “living separate and apart” required that the wife establish “her own place of residence.”
The Court did not address, and therefore did not foreclose the possibility, that spouses could live separate and apart in separate residences while “they continued to literally share one roof.” For now, what this means exactly is up to the lower courts, or possibly the legislature.
Determining the date of separation can be critically important in many family law cases. As the community exists only between the date of marriage and the date of separation, it is only after the parties separate that they begin to accumulate separate property. If the parties aren’t separated, the spouse will, for instance, continue to have a one-half interest in the other spouse’s earnings. Over the course of many years, this can make a difference of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The date of separation is also important in spousal support, as the duration of spousal support heavily depends upon the length of the marriage.