Property Basics – Community Property and Separate Property

How does California categorize the things I own in a divorce?

Family can be a complex issue. Throw law into the mix, and now you have an ever-changing Rubik’s cube. Family law covers many legal concepts, from child custody to property division. Here, we will cover the basics of categorizing property before, during, and after marriage into what California considers community property and separate property. Some areas are not as simple as they seem.

In California, property can be categorized as either community property or separate property.

Community Property

First, community property is all of your combined income, property, and other real estate that you or your spouse acquired during the marriage. This belongs to both spouses. Under community property laws, it doesn’t matter who purchased something or earned income. In California, both spouses own what is earned/acquired during the marriage equally. Read our article on community property in California.

Separate Property

Separate property is what you owned, earned and any debt from before you married or after you separated. Additionally, the property maintains that characteristic for anything you purchase with separate property or you earn from separate property. This is the case only if not commingled with a community property asset, like a house. Inheritance or gifts to one of you, even if this took place when you were married, is still considered separate property. So, when looking at property, there are two ways to define it, as either community property or separate property. And, just because you were married, does not automatically make the property at issue community property.

Both Community and Separate Property

Now, it gets muddled when property has both those aspects. For example, if you had a rental property before marriage (separate property), and then you decided to use wages received during marriage (community property) to improve the property. That would give your spouse a claim to the portion of the improvements made to the property. This is because of the community property characterization of the money you used to improve the property. Just because you put the money towards the separate property rental does not make that money suddenly separate property.

There are other facets of property characterization, such as reimbursements and retirement division based on years married together in combination with years before marriage. If you understand the basics of the property being either separate property (all yours or all theirs) and community property (split equally for the duration of marriage) it stands you in good stead for any potential property division in your matter.

As an aside, if you own real property in other states or countries, that is called quasi-community property. That means the property would be considered divisible as community property under California law. However, there is an argument to be made that wherever that real property is located should be divided under the applicable state or country’s marital division laws.

Property division can quickly become a complex issue. If you think it may be applicable to your case, please give us a call at (833) 931-1615 or click here to contact us and schedule an initial consultation!

*DISCLAIMER: The contents of this article do not constitute legal advice but should be construed for general informational purposes only.

Subscribe to our newsletter