Going through a divorce is one of the most difficult and confusing things that can happen in your life. Not only are emotions heightened and fluctuating, but there are endless logistical nightmares to deal with as well—property division, spousal support, child custody and prenuptial agreements, just to name a few. Understanding the differences between separate and community property is going to be essential if you’re going through a divorce in California. Knowing who is legally entitled to what property will of course be important now, but it also has implications for your future and estate planning.

It can be incredibly challenging trying to navigate these waters alone. California’s legal system is complicated and a good family law attorney is key to getting the results you deserve. The California divorce attorneys at The Law Offices of Bamieh & De Smeth, PLC fight for our clients’ rights to keep their individual property and ensure that our clients get what they are entitled to from a divorce. Call (805) 643-5555 today for a free consultation.

What is a Community Property State?

You may find it helpful to have a handle on the terminology used during your divorce proceedings. The concept of community property might sound simple at first, but there are some complicated rules worth knowing and understanding. California is a community property state, meaning that spouses own equally almost all property that one either spouse acquires during the marriage. Here’s the catch: it doesn’t matter if the property is only titled in one spouse’s name; the other spouse still enjoys an equal one-half interest. This means that as long as you’re in a community property state, your spouse can’t get around these rules by buying property without telling you. You’re still entitled to half in a divorce proceeding, whether you knew about it or not.

There are some downsides (if you’re going through a divorce) to being in a community property state as well. Half of each spouse’s income is owned by the other spouse during marriage, and debts incurred during marriage are generally considered debts of the couple. This means that things bought with money either spouse earns during marriage are viewed as community property too. It’s also possible to commingle what was originally separate property into marital property if you’re not careful to maintain records.
Keep in mind that separate property still exists in community states, despite the name. Gifts given to one spouse, property either spouse owned before the marriage and kept separate during the marriage, and inheritances are all considered separate property in California. Your spouse won’t have any right to a share of these items during the distribution of assets in your divorce.

In a separate property state, separate property belongs only to one spouse and the other spouse holds no automatic right to share in it. Spouses have the option to agree in writing that a piece of property is separate, as long as the writing complies with relevant state standards (usually in the form of a prenuptial agreement before marriage, or transmutation agreement after marriage).

Community Property vs. Separate Property

Even when you’re familiar with the terminology, classifying the property in a community state like California can still be challenging. Especially with in high value divorces, protecting your individual assets may be important. As mentioned above, it is often the case that a spouse has commingled her separate property with marital property, creating the possibility that she might lose her separate property interest. For instance, if a spouse were to place funds she received through an inheritance (originally separate property) into a joint checking account, the property has been commingled. Generally, when a new asset is acquired through a combination of marital and separate property, the money loses its identity and the property becomes marital. There is no prohibition on commingling funds in marital estates, but it’s important to remember that failing to keep proper records can render property indistinguishable and thus, vulnerable to division.

Settling Property Distribution Disputes with a California Divorce Attorney

Don’t forget that if your prenuptial agreement provided that there would be no community property, most of these rules won’t apply to you. Prenups allow couples to bypass the community property regulations set out by their state and keep all of their property as separate. California’s divorce laws can be difficult to understand without the help of a sympathetic and experienced Southern California family law attorney. The Law Offices of Bamieh & De Smeth, PLC are here to protect you and your property during this difficult time. Our attorneys have the knowledge and skills to handle your California property dispute. Call (805) 643-5555 today for a free consultation.