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Across the Great Divide: Splitting Marital Assets in California

In a movie from many years back, a character said, "There's what's right and there's what's right, and never the twain shall meet." It's a cryptic comment, but you could interpret it to mean that two people can both be certain each one is right about something, and yet never agree on the issue.

When two people divorce, this situation comes up all the time. Perfectly reasonable people may be unable to understand the other's point of view. A common area of contention during divorces where this often happens is in property division in California.

A community of assets

On paper, dividing marital property seems simple. The State of California adheres to the concept of "community property." Under community property laws, everything either spouse acquired during the marriage up until the date of separation belongs equally to both spouses. Examples include:

  • Cars
  • Real estate
  • Home furnishings
  • Life insurance with cash value
  • Investment holdings
  • Businesses
  • Bank accounts

If either spouse can prove a particular asset is an actual separate property, it will not be part of the division of assets. Separate property may include things owned before the wedding, gifts, and inheritances, or anything listed as separate property in a marital agreement. California presumes that the parties hold all property jointly unless there is proof to the contrary.

If you own property in a state that does not recognize community property, whether purchased as a resident of California, or before moving to California, that property is "quasi-community property." Such property is divided as if it were community property unless it is proved separate.

Debts are also marital property, but California law deals with them differently from assets. The division of debts is equitable rather than equal. A judge will split the debts between the two parties in a manner he or she believes is fair.

Fight for what's right, not for what's left

It isn't difficult to imagine how property division can be a sensitive matter, particularly if high-value assets are involved. No one wants to come away feeling they have not received a fair share of the marital assets. To ensure a fair division, the key first steps are ascertaining the extent and value of your assets and acquiring proof of separate property status if such property is claimed.

In these matters, it is crucial to have on your side an experienced family law attorney -- one with the legal knowledge and professional resources to protect your property rights from the very start.