When you marry or register a domestic partnership in California, the state’s Family Codes determine your legal rights and responsibilities. As a legal couple, the state considers you a single entity. Almost everything you acquire during the relationship becomes jointly-owned community property. Before you finalize a divorce, legal separation, or partnership termination, you must document and divide everything you own. The law provides a legal framework for dividing your assets fairly, but the process is often complicated and challenging.
You have an opportunity to work out your own community property division arrangement. If you can’t agree, eventually a judge will make decisions on your behalf. As a Certified Specialist in Family Law, Attorney Steven M. Bishop can help you resolve your community property concerns. We understand that the process is often emotional and complicated, so we’ve created a guide to help you understand the basics.
Community property includes all of your real property and personal property. To determine an equitable distribution, the court requires a complete assessment of everything you, your spouse, or your partner earned or acquired during your marriage or domestic partnership. When you legally separate, divorce, or terminate your partnership, your community property is subject to a 50/50 division. If you’re like many couples, your assets often include:
Quasi-community property is an asset you, your spouse, or partner acquire in another state during your marriage. If you lived in the property’s jurisdiction, you and your property could be subject to that state’s laws or guidelines. When you’re divorcing or terminating your relationship in California, your property is simply treated as community property.
Some people see their pets as members of the family. During a divorce or termination, this often triggers an emotional ownership dispute. Recently, California became one of many states to consider a pet’s welfare during divorce proceedings. While pets are still considered community property, the law leans toward the idea that they are also sentient beings. In granting sole or joint ownership, a judge must consider “…the care of the pet animal…” It’s similar to how a judge would evaluate a child custody situation.
Separate property is income or assets that belong only to the acquiring spouse or partner. One example is a car that one partner purchased with their own money prior to formalizing a domestic partnership. The car is considered separate property. It isn’t subject to division as community property if it meets one or more of these conditions.
A commingling issue occurs when an asset has both separate and community property aspects. This occurs when one or both partners combine pre-marital income to buy a home or other property during their marriage or partnership. Both parties have a separate interest and a community interest that must be evaluated and negotiated when they dissolve their relationship. The separate and community interests can be difficult to evaluate unless the couple keeps detailed records of their separate contributions.
California’s property division guidelines also apply to debts and liabilities. As a couple is legally a single entity, both parties are responsible for debts even if only one spouse or partner agreed to the debt. The 50/50 community disposition does not apply to debt a spouse or partner incurred prior to establishing a formal relationship.
A retirement or pension plan is often a valuable joint asset. A judge will order the appropriate distribution as community property, but the process often requires more than an agreement or approval. Depending on the type of retirement plan, a divorcing spouse or terminating partner must join the retirement plan as a party to the divorce. Only then can a judge order the plan to make payments to the entitled spouse or partner.
When a couple executes a premarital agreement, they have a minimal possibility of disputing its provisions. In drafting an agreement, a couple can choose the applicable law and jurisdiction. They can determine property disposition and limit most traditional post-marital rights and obligations. A spouse or partner has limited grounds for disputing a pre-marital agreement.
Property often becomes an obstacle to a final dissolution or termination. That’s why the court has discretion in finalizing a couple’s assets distribution. If necessary, a judge will decide or refer the case for arbitration. If the assets have a value under $50,000, an arbitrator’s decision is non-appealable. Although the court encourages divorcing and terminating parties to create their own community property distribution arrangement, the court must eventually sign off on the details.
Dividing your assets at the end of a relationship is often an agonizing process. You must concentrate on acquisitions and values at a time when your emotions are too complex to focus. Attorney Steven M. Bishop is a Certified Specialist in Family Law. He has assisted clients with their most complicated property distribution issues. He welcomes the opportunity to do the same for you.
If you need assistance resolving any aspect of your dissolution or partnership termination, contact Attorney Bishop to schedule a consultation. Call our office at (619) 299-9780 or complete our Contact Form.
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