When you get divorced in California, you and your ex-spouse must divide all of the property, income, and assets that you acquired during your marriage. If your case goes to court, a judge will automatically apply California’s property division law to divide your assets. California is a community property state, meaning all marital assets get split down the middle – 50/50 – regardless of which spouse brought more money into the marriage.
Community Property vs. Equitable Division
Two legal doctrines apply to how property is divided in a divorce case: community property and equitable division. Community property laws are less common, as most states have switched to equitable division rules. In an equitable division state, a judge will divide assets and debts between both parties based on what is equitable, or fair. In a community property state, however, all marital assets are divided in half regardless of whether this is fair for either party. California is one of just nine community property states in the country.
How California’s Community Property Law Works in a Divorce Case
If you and your ex-spouse cannot work together to compromise and reach a settlement agreement dividing your property, your California divorce case will have to go to trial. When the matter of property division is put before the courts in California, they will apply the community property law found in California Family Code Section 2550. This law states that the court shall divide the community estate of the parties equally. It is based on whether an asset or piece of property is classified as community or separate.
Community property as defined in California Family Code Section 760 is all property, real or personal, acquired by a married person during the marriage while domiciled in the state. It can refer to any wages earned, property purchased, and assets acquired by either party during the course of the marriage. It can also refer to debts accumulated during the marriage, including student loan debt, automobile loans and credit card debt.
Separate property is not included in the calculation of a property division agreement in California. Separate property refers to assets that a spouse owned prior to the marriage (and did not commingle with the other party during the marriage), as well as gifts and inheritance given to one party during the marriage. Any property acquired after the date of legal separation is also separate property, as is property purchased with separate property.
How Can You Protect Your Property in a California Divorce?
California’s community property division law is not always fair to one or both parties in a divorce case. For this reason, couples are encouraged to protect their hard-earned assets and marital property in as many ways as possible when preparing for divorce. Possibilities for protecting your property may include:
- Making a prenuptial agreement ahead of time. A prenuptial or postnuptial agreement can determine how you and your spouse will divide your property should your marriage ever end in divorce.
- Reaching a divorce settlement. California’s community property law will not apply upon the written agreement of the parties. If you and your ex-spouse can agree on a different way to divide your debts and assets, a judge will typically sign off on what you decide.
- Hiring a property settlement lawyer. An experienced divorce attorney can find smart ways to protect your assets during your divorce case, as well as help you mediate with your ex-spouse to improve the odds of reaching a satisfactory settlement agreement.
California’s community property law may seem like a simple 50/50 split, but this is not the case. Property division is a complicated area of family law that involves numerous factors. This is especially true in complex property division cases, such as in a high net-worth divorce. For assistance protecting your assets and navigating the state’s community property law, contact an attorney in California.