March 2001

By Pamela Edwards-Swift, CFLS

In California, and with certain exceptions, property acquired by either the husband or the wife, during their marriage, is community property. That is true even if the parties keep separate bank accounts, credit cards, etc. Each spouse shared the marital property equally regardless of who earned the asset. For example, if the wife is a highly paid executive earning $200,000.00 per year and the husband is a police officer earning $60,000.00 per year, the combined income is $260,000.00 and the parties own an equal share in that sum.

The same is true if one spouse pays the entire mortgage and all household expenses from their paycheck and the other spouse contributes nothing. For example, in the case of a stay at home mom. The paycheck that comes in, no matter who earns it, belongs to both the husband and the wife.

In the dissolution of a marriage (with certain exceptions) property acquired during the marriage is divided equally. That result does not change, no matter why the parties are divorcing or who made all the money. So, even if your spouse is doing trapeze acts with your neighbor while you are working your fingers to the bones at the office, the property will be divided equally.

The best way to look at it is to think of a marriage as a business partnership. In dividing a business partnership, each partner leaves with their proportionate share. In a marriage, both parties to the marriage are equal (50/50) partners. So, in dividing the marital (community) property, each partner (spouse) is entitled to one-half of the assets and one-half of the debts.

Now, keep in mind there are always exceptions to the general rule. Some assets or debts may not be community property. Inheritances to one spouse, gifts to one spouse, and or bequests to one spouse are the separate property of the person receiving the asset. For example, if the husband’s Grandma dies and leaves her Home Depot stock to the husband and her ruby necklace to the wife, the Home Depot stock would be the separate property of the husband and the ruby necklace would be the separate proeperty of the wife.

Likewise, if there is a debt associated with a separate property asset, that would be the separate property debt of the person owning the asset. An example of that is a student loan. The person with the degree financed by a student loan will probably be awarded the student loan as their separate property debt.

Specific questions concerning the division of property in California should be directed toward a family law attorney.