Divorce is a stressful time. Some studies have placed it as the second most stressful life event, just below the death of a spouse. No matter how good or bad the marriage was, a change that drastic can cause severe emotional distress. Beyond that, there are concrete, pragmatic concerns about your future.
These concerns often revolve around money and assets. What can you keep? What will you lose? Will you be forced to sell your property?
To answer this question, you must understand how property is divided in California. It starts with martial, or communal, property which affects how assets are distributed.
Types of Property in a Marriage
In a marriage, there are two types of property: marital property and separate property. Marital property belongs to both spouses, and separate property belongs to just one person. Let’s take a closer look at each category.
To belong to “just you,” separate property must meet certain requirements. First, anything you bring into the marriage is yours. If you already owned a home, car, etc., and you kept that property throughout the marriage, you can keep it as the sole owner. Anything you inherit from a relative is separate property as well. Also, any gifts you receive from someone outside of the marriage belong to only you.
Any property that was bought during the marriage belongs to both parties. There are no exceptions. It doesn’t matter who paid for it or who used it. Imagine you are an avid gamer, and you spend a good portion of your budget on consoles and games. Even if your spouse has no time for video games, they are still co-owners of your collection. The same is true for records they added to their vinyl collection. You are part owner of those, even if you never touched them.
Property Division in California
The above property categorizations are particularly relevant in California. It is one of only nine states that uses a “community property division” model. Often regarded as antiquated, this model strives to split assets among spouses in a completely equal, 50/50 split. This is why it’s so important to understand what is and isn’t marital property. In a divorce, all marital property will be divided equally.
The state can use many methods to achieve a fair, 50/50 property split. Courts can use any combination of the options below.
Physically Trading Property
After all property is appraised, there is a total value of the assets that must be divided equally. In some cases, it is best to give each party physical property up to half the value of the marital assets.
For example, imagine the total value of marital assets is $200,000. The house alone is valued at $100,000. One spouse could get the home, and the other gets the rest of the martial property – jewelry, cars, collectibles, etc.
Another option is for one spouse to pay the other half the value of the property. For instance, take our $100,000 home. One spouse could take the home provided they pay the other $50,000, or half its value.
Selling Off Property
When property is in dispute, sometimes the only answer is to sell it and split the money between both spouses. This often happens with expensive assets, such as the home or a valuable art collection. Neither side wants to budge and relinquish the property to the other, so the court orders them to sell it off.
This situation is not as dire as it may seem. Keep in mind that, no matter what, anything you purchased within the marriage can be disputed. Ultimately, you own only half of all property. One way or another, you will be forced to give up something to keep what you believe is rightfully yours.
Protecting Your Property
There are ways to fight for your assets. You can argue that you are entitled to certain property.
Entitlement is less about whose name is on the lease and more about someone’s investment in something. Recall our video games example from before. If one spouse was the only gamer in the home, they can make a strong argument that you are entitled to keep all gaming-related items.
For more context, imagine the home. Both spouses lived there, but maybe one was a stay-at-home parent. They kept up with repairs and remodels. They kept the place clean and operating efficiently. The other spouse would come home from work and enjoy the fruits of the homemaker’s labor. This homemaker can make a strong case that they are entitled to the home.
In a divorce, courts can use many factors to determine entitlement. They can look at the length of the marriage or consider the person who contributed to the property. For example, say one partner supported the other in earning a degree. After getting this degree, the other spouse got a job that paid much more, and they bought a sports car. Even if the supportive spouse never drove the car, they could claim that they are entitled to it since they created the conditions to acquire said car.
Remember that in California, the court will always strive for an equal split of assets. Even if you successfully argue for your right to property, you will likely be forced to give up money or something else. For this reason, you should seek legal representation in your divorce. Dividing property is complex, especially when there is something worth fighting for. You need someone who can both argue in your favor and help you negotiate a fair trade.
For help protecting your assets in a divorce, contact our firm for a free consultation. You can fill out an online form or call us at (916) 299-3936.