Understanding California’s Community Property Law in Divorce
California is one of nine states that uses a community property statute to resolve property division in divorce. This means that all marital property in a divorce is subject to a strict 50/50 division in every divorce filed in the state. Some people believe the community property standard to be overbearing, often forcing divorcing couples to liquidate assets to divide the proceeds. Others carry misconceptions about what community property means and what is subject to division in divorce.
If you are preparing to divorce in California, it’s vital to understand the value that an experienced divorce attorney can provide in your case. Community property law may seem overly strict, but you still have the right to keep all your separate property in a divorce. A good attorney can help you retain your separate property ownership rights, complete your financial disclosure packet as quickly as possible, and approach property division with greater confidence, helping you secure the most favorable outcome.
Marital vs. Separate Property
In a California divorce, two types of property must be identified, classified, and evaluated for the couple to complete property division.
- Community property – or marital property. This includes everything gained by the couple during their marriage.
- Each spouse’s separate property. This typically includes assets and property owned prior to the marriage.
You must provide a financial disclosure statement that includes all your financial records pertaining to both your marital and separate property. You and your spouse must reconcile your respective marital property ownership records for community property division, and you must each provide documentation to substantiate your claims of separate property. The most commonly claimed forms of separate property that are exempt from division in a California divorce include:
- Gifts received by the spouse during their marriage. This includes gifts given from one spouse to another.
- Inheritance from deceased parents or other relatives. If you were left property and assets from your relatives through their estate, anything you inherited is exempt from division in your divorce regardless of whether you inherited it prior to marriage or during your marriage.
- Anything given to the spouse during the marriage in a “donatory” capacity.
- Anything owned prior to the marriage. However, there are some situations in which the property one spouse owned before marriage later becomes shared marital property. Your attorney can advise you as to whether this may apply to certain items you have listed as your separate property.
You must provide proof that your separate property meets the appropriate criteria to retain ownership of it in divorce. The income you earned prior to marriage will remain your separate property, but income earned during marriage commingled with other marital funds would be subject to division. Anything a couple purchases together during marriage and all income earned by both spouses counts as marital property. The same rule applies to debts, and divorcing couples must be prepared to split ownership of both marital assets and debts acquired during their marriage.
Resolving Disputes in Property Division
It’s possible for many types of disputes to arise during property division proceedings in a California divorce. One of the most common disputes is a claim of hidden assets. Some couples, unfortunately, attempt to engage in unethical or illegal actions to conceal assets in an effort to shield them from property division.
It’s also possible for a divorcing spouse to intentionally waste marital funds or run up credit card debt in their spouse’s name out of spite prior to filing for divorce. If you believe your spouse has engaged in any such activity, you must report it to your attorney immediately. They may recommend filing contempt proceedings and will ensure the other party’s behavior receives appropriate attention from the court.
Q: What Happens If My Spouse Tries to Claim My Separate Property Is Theirs?
A: It’s possible for property that was once considered one spouse’s separate property to become community property under certain conditions. For example, if you owned your home before marriage, it would be your separate property in a divorce. However, if your spouse improved its value or enabled you to keep it during your marriage, they would have a solid argument that it has transmuted to community property due to the added value they provided.
Q: Will I Have to Give My Ex Half of My Property?
A: While the community property law of California requires a completely even division of marital property in divorce, this does not mean you must give your spouse half of everything you own in divorce. Marital property and separate property have different rules in divorce, and your attorney will help you understand how the state’s property division laws are likely to apply to your case.
Q: How Long Will It Take to Settle My Divorce?
A: The time your case will require to complete depends on how willing you and your spouse are to compromise on the terms of your divorce. Alternative dispute resolution can significantly reduce the time it will take to complete your divorce, but it requires the willingness of both spouses to work. When you resolve a divorce in litigation, it can easily take several months to resolve.
Q: Is It Worth Hiring a Divorce Attorney in California?
A: You may assume your divorce is straightforward enough that you can manage it without hiring an attorney, but this assumption is both unwise and, in most cases, untrue. An experienced lawyer can help you proceed through your divorce as efficiently as possible and help you reach a better outcome than you could otherwise manage on your own. It is always worth investing in legal counsel you can trust.
Bickford, Blado & Botros have an extensive professional record of successful divorce representation behind our team, thanks to our client-focused approach to family law counsel. If you have concerns about property division in your impending divorce, we can help you understand the legal mechanisms that apply to your case and prepare you for the difficult proceedings ahead. Contact us today and schedule your consultation with an attorney you can trust.
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