California is one of a handful of "community property" states in which any assets acquired by a husband or wife during their marriage are considered community property, subject to equal division upon divorce. Spouses can make a mutual decision to avoid this outcome, such as by using a prenuptial agreement. Otherwise, California law will dictate how property is divided.
In some respects, the concept of community property simplifies the matter of property division. There is no need to argue about who contributed more to the acquisition of an asset. If marital property in California were a pie, there would be no inquiry as to who bought the ingredients or did the work of baking it. It would simply be divided in half, with each party receiving an equal share upon divorce. During the marriage, however, each party has an equal and undivided interest in all community property.
California also recognizes the concept of "quasi-community property," or property acquired in another state during the marriage, which, had it been acquired in California, would be community property. An example would be a car purchased in another state during the marriage. Quasi-community property is divided as if it were community property.
Only property that is "marital" is subject to division as community property. Other property is considered separate. What does "marital property" mean? Essentially, marital property is property acquired by either spouse, or both spouses, during the marriage, regardless of the name in which the property is titled. There are exceptions to this rule, most notably property one party receives during the marriage by gift or inheritance. Such property is considered separate, but it may be commingled with community property, after which it is treated as community property. An example would be an inheritance of $10,000 received by one spouse, but deposited into the couple's joint checking account.
Property acquired by either party before the marriage begins or after it ends is considered separate property. The beginning of a marriage is usually obvious, but when does California consider a marriage over for the purposes of classifying property as marital or separate? California law uses the date of separation as the "marital cut-off" date. Note, however, that the date of separation may or may not be the date the parties actually stop living together.
The marital cut-off date is a fact-specific inquiry, and the court will look at all relevant circumstances, including whether the couple was living together, represented themselves to family, friends, and the general public as separated or married, continued to have sexual relations, and so on. In essence, the court is trying to determine whether the couple behaved as people who had experienced complete termination of their marriage relationship.
The marital cut-off date can have significant impact on what property is available for division in divorce. At Shaffer & Associates, we have extensive experience with community property issues, including identifying whether certain property is likely to be considered marital or separate. Whether in negotiation or litigation, we advocate aggressively in order to protect our clients' rights to their property.
The San Diego family law attorneys of Shaffer & Associates serve San Diego County and the surrounding communities, including Orange County, Riverside County and Los Angeles County. Contact Shaffer & Associates online or call (619) 230-1030 today to consult with us about your concerns regarding community property and the division of assets and debts.