What does it mean that California is a community property state?
You may have heard that California is a community property state. This means that all property a couple acquires during marriage belongs to both of them equally under the law and that the couple will need to divide them evenly in case of divorce or separation.
Understanding the difference between community property and separate property, and equal distribution and equitable distribution, may help you come to a fair agreement under the law.
Community property and separate property
States recognize couples’ property differently, but California dictates that all assets and debts a couple acquires during marriage belong to both of them equally — regardless of who paid for them, who used them or who is responsible for them.
This means that even if you personally saved up for a new guitar or a designer purse, the purchase belongs to your spouse as much as it does to you. Everything you earn during your relationship belongs to both of you equally.
You are still able to retain separate property, however. These items would include property you acquired before the date of marriage, after the date of separation or gifts and inheritances you kept separate during your relationship.
In some cases, you may be able to dispute ownership of community property if you have a good reason, such as if your spouse created a debt without your knowledge or consent.
Equal distribution and equitable distribution
Many states divide property based on what a judge determines to be equitable considering all factors. In other words, one partner may receive a greater share of the assets based on need, earning potential, child custody, the reason for the divorce or other factors.
In California, the law dictates that you will divide your property equally in most cases. Since you both have equal ownership of the property, you have the same claim to it after a divorce or separation. This does not mean that a judge has to divide your property against your wishes. Many couples negotiate their own property division arrangement and then take it before a judge to get a court order.