Divorce is frequently, but not always, a fraught topic for many couples. The reason is that divorces bring into play a number of complicated issues like child custody and visitation rights, potential alimony payments, and often the division of assets and debts post-divorce.
So, how exactly does the court view property within the context of marriage and divorce? Just considering some of the things involved and how those, even theoretically, should be divvied up can be daunting. How does someone get half of a car, for instance, or how should pensions and stock options be handled and equitably divided?
Those are great questions, but first, let’s consider what assets are typically involved in divorce proceedings. One of the most common material assets brought up within the context of family law is physical property like homes as well as rental properties and vehicles. Financial assets like stock options, retirement plans and pensions, certain businesses and brokerage accounts might also come into play.
Equitable Distribution and Community Property
The law in some states maintains that all property acquired after a marriage should be split 50-50 following a divorce (community property state) whereas other states say that the division doesn’t need to be a 50-50 split but merely equitable.
California – along with states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Washington -are community property states where any property that is acquired after your marriage date is divided equally following a divorce. Believe it or not, though, California is one of the exceptions and not the rule in America since most other states are equitable distribution (a.k.a., common law property) states in which judges have more latitude in how they divvy up property.
The interesting thing is that in community property states like California both spouses are said to have equal rights to all material and financial assets acquired after the marriage date. This means that if for instance, only one spouse had steady employment throughout the marriage or earned considerable more than the other spouse, assets are divided up equally between spouses in a divorce proceeding in states like California.
The flip side is that both spouses are considered liable for debts in the same 50-50 manner. In equitable distribution states family law judges would have the legal latitude to give the higher earning spouse more of the debt burden during divorce proceedings, but in a community property state like California, the judge should be applying the “equal ownership” concept to assets and debts alike. This includes credit card debt, interest, car loans and even home mortgages you might be struggling to pay down.
Are There Limits to Community Property?
Simply put, yes. These limits are dictated by one overriding factor: time. Assets acquired before the marriage and/or after couples have separated with the intention of terminating the marriage are considered separate property owned by each individual spouse. The title to a home or title to a car, as well as other physical property, owned by one spouse prior to the marriage, should be owned by that same spouse post-divorce.
The interesting wrinkle to all this is that sometimes individual property and community property mix during the course of a marriage.
What happens then? If one spouse works at a high-income job throughout the marriage and uses that income to purchase a car or home, then in a community property state like California that car (or more likely, it’s blue book value) would be split post-divorce between spouses. Value appraisals for other material assets like homes, antiques or even retirement assets will typically be valued by relevant authorities like accountants, financial experts and judges themselves.