Married couples in California share all property and assets that they acquire during the life of their marriage.  When they get divorced, they split all property 50/50.  Unmarried couples cannot take advantage of these 50/50 “community property” laws when they break up and instead must follow a different set of rules to decide who gets the house, cars, and other assets after a breakup.  Our Ventura family law attorneys explain how property is usually divided during – and after – cohabitation in California.

Dividing Property After a Breakup for Cohabitating Couples

When you move in together with your significant other, the law does not treat you as spouses for property ownership.  Instead, you function similar to roommates, with each of you keeping full ownership of your property.  Unlike roommates, however, couples typically share most things when they move in together.  This can make breaking up more difficult if you rely on shared assets, especially a house or a car.

Everything you owned when you moved in together should be yours when you move out again.  This means that if you came into the relationship owning something like a television, or even your clothing, you should leave that relationship still owning that property.

Couples typically share a lot of things, potentially even buying new things together to use for the household.  Bath towels, bedding, kitchen appliances, and other household items are typically purchased by one person or by sharing the cost – but they are purchased for both individuals to use.  This means that these items are likely jointly owned instead of belonging to either individual, meaning that they must be divided when you move out.

Other items that one of the individuals bring into the relationship might be intentionally shared, which could give the other person part ownership of that property.  For instance, if a boyfriend brings his TV to his new house he shares with his girlfriend, and his girlfriend uses it in a shared room and he says he intends to share it as “our” TV, then it may legally become shared property.

Deciding what property is shared or jointly-owned can be difficult and lead to disputes after a breakup.  You and your significant other may be able to form a “cohabitation agreement” – a contract that dictates from the beginning who owns what property and how you will split it if you break up.  This is similar to a prenuptial agreement or postnuptial agreement and can be made later after you move in or updated when you make new purchases.

Who Takes the Cars and House After an Unmarried Breakup?

Cars and houses have something that other assets typically do not have: ownership papers.  Laying claim over a TV after a breakup by arguing that you bought it may convince your significant other or a court that it does belong to you – but if you shared it with your significant other or expressed an interest in sharing it jointly, the court may say that it is jointly owned.  Cars and real estate have hard paperwork listing the owner’s name, which makes it much easier to establish sole ownership even when there is evidence that these were shared.

Real estate is typically purchased either by yourself or jointly with another person – be that a spouse, a business partner, a roommate, or your significant other.  There are a few different ways to own this property, and each establishes different ownership rights:

  • Sole Ownership – If one person owns the house and their partner or significant other moves in with them, the sole owner typically gets to keep 100% of the house when they break up.
  • Community Property – This only applies to married couples, who split the house 50/50 if they divorce.
  • Joint Tenancy – If two or more people are joint tenants, they each own 100% of the property and are entitled to their fair share of it when they sell it (usually 50/50). If they die, the property passes fully to the other owner; you can’t pass your share on through a will.  You can sell off your share of a joint tenancy, but it turns it into a tenancy in common.
  • Tenancy in Common – Each owner keeps their fair share of the property based on what they paid into it or agreed upon at the time of purchase (e.g., 50/50, 25/75, ). Each person continues to own their share, so a breakup does not change the property rights – you keep what you paid for.

Unless your name is on the deed, you are not legally an owner of the property.  If your name is on the deed, the type of tenancy or ownership agreement details what share you take when you leave.  Tenancies in common are the default agreement type, but you should talk to an attorney when purchasing a house together or breaking up to learn what your specific property rights are.

If you rent, your lease agreement will typically say what happens if you end the lease.  You may be able to buy out your partner’s share or find a new roommate – or simply wait until the lease is over to move out.

Cars are similar to houses: the title of the car dictates who owns it.  If you brought your own car to the relationship and let your live-in partner use it, it should still be considered your car.  If you and your significant other purchased the car together and both of your names are on the title (and on the lease), you may need to sell the car or have one owner buy out the other’s share.  Otherwise, you still legally share ownership of the car and must work together on splitting its use.

Call Our Family Law Attorneys for Help Dividing Property after Cohabitation

If you are breaking up with your live-in significant other, call the Ventura family law attorneys at the Law Offices of Bamieh and De Smeth.  Our lawyers can help you divide your assets, form agreements on asset division, and determine who owns what assets.  If you have shared children, you should also contact a lawyer about child custody and child support issues after a breakup.  Call our law offices today at (805) 643-5555 to schedule a free legal consultation.