Dividing Property in a Divorce: What You Need to Know

If you are a resident of Los Angeles County and are headed for a divorce, you will surely have questions about your rights to marital property and your obligations to pay off certain debts acquired before, during, and after your marriage took place.

For starters, you should know that California is a community property state, which means that each spouse is entitled to half of the marital assets and property acquired during the marriage. Spouses are also equally responsible for the marital debts.

Not all property owned by two spouses is considered “marital or community property.” Separate property is not subject to division during a divorce, meaning the spouses get to keep their separate property, which includes:

  • Property acquired before the marriage
  • Gifts and inheritances acquired before, during, or after the marriage
  • Personal injury settlements or jury awards

Generally, everything else is considered community property and is subject to a 50/50 split. But, just because spouses are entitled to half of the marital (community) property, it does not mean that couples have to divide everything down the middle. Spouses have every right to reach an agreement of their own; they are NOT required to split their assets equally.

Facts About Property Division in a California Divorce

Now you know that in a California divorce, under the law spouses are entitled to half of the marital assets, but they are not required to stick to that formula.

Since spouses generally prefer to craft their own marital settlement agreement, the courts rarely have to step in and decide for them, but when a couple cannot agree, a judge will divide the couple’s assets and debts according to California’s community property laws.

With these basics in mind, there are still other factors that come into play when a couple divorces and divides their property. You may be wondering if you need a divorce attorney to help you divide your property, and the answer is not straightforward, it depends on your individual situation.

Do you have significant assets, such as a home, several real estate properties, or a business? Or, are you and your spouse in a significant amount of debt? If you are a high-net-worth couple or if you have a lot of debt, it is wise to consult with an experienced divorce lawyer.

Even if you do not anticipate a contentious or a litigated divorce, an attorney can be very helpful when it comes to saving time and drafting a fair marital settlement agreement, one that ensures your rights are protected during the divorce.

Do you believe you already divided your property?

Let’s say you and your spouse physically separated. Each one of you took the furniture you wanted, and each one of you kept your own vehicles. You already divided your property, right? Not exactly.

Under California law, a friendly agreement among spouses about furniture and vehicles is not enough. It does not matter if you took the living room set and your spouse took the bedroom set, or that you took the truck, while your spouse kept the four-door sedan.

According to the divorce laws, it doesn’t matter who took what. Until a judge officially awards the items to one of the parties, they still belong to the community. On the other hand, the separate property that belongs to one spouse remains his or hers, even if they allow their spouse to use it.

Determining Fair Market Value

In a divorce, one of the most complicated aspects can be dividing the marital property, especially when a couple as accumulated a significant amount of assets over the years. Often, spouses will have to determine the fair market value of an item during the division process.

Determining the fair market value has nothing to do with retail, or what you paid for it. It has to do with how much you could get if you sold the item “as is” today, in its current condition. For example, if you bought a couch and loveseat for $2,000 10 years ago, how much could you get for the set at a yard sale or on Craigslist today? That $2,000 couch and loveseat may only be worth $200.00 today, if that.

If you are trying to figure out how much your car is worth, you can find out its fair market value by checking the Kelley Blue Book. On the other hand, if you need to figure out how much your home is worth, we recommend contacting a local real estate agent.

The agent can give you several comparable values in your neighborhood, or you may want to have an appraisal done.

What if I bought something with my own money?

Let’s say that during your marriage, you worked and put your paycheck into your own, separate bank account, and you used that money to purchase your own vehicle after you became separated.

Not only did you pay for the car with your own income, but the vehicle is titled in your name alone. So, this means that the car belongs to only you, right?

No, that is not the case. Even if you paid for the car in full with the money that you earned, and from your personal bank account, your spouse still owns half of the vehicle. This is because all of the money that is earned by two spouses or domestic partners during a marriage (or domestic partnership) is considered “community property.”

This means that all community property belongs to both spouses equally, regardless of who paid for it, or whose name is on the title.

Do you have further questions about how community property and debts are divided in a California divorce? If so, contact our Los Angeles divorce firm for a free case evaluation.