When people get married, it’s often said that they are becoming one. Their lives, friends, and family are combined to form their new life. But what about their property? Does one person’s stuff automatically belong to the new spouse? Not necessarily, especially in a community property state like California. Possessions can be considered community (owned by both), separate (owned by one person), or mixed (a little of both). To make things a little more complicated, three types of separate property can exist in a California marriage.
#1. Property That One Party Owned Before the Marriage
Usually, people already own stuff when they get married. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Beanie baby collection, a souped-up ’65 Mustang, or a hefty investment portfolio – it belongs to someone. As types of separate property go, this one can be fairly easy to spot, at least at the time the couple says, “I do.”
But sometimes separate property increases in value as the marriage progresses. For example, real property or an investment portfolio could increase or decrease in value. In some divorces, the increased amount could be considered community property.
Also, these types of separate property might be maintained with marital funds or community property. For example, Sophie owned a house before she and Jackson were married. During their five-year marriage, money from their joint account was used to maintain the house, pay taxes, and pay homeowners’ insurance. A California divorce lawyer who is well-versed in property division laws could claim that at least a portion of the house is now community property.
#2. Gifts and More – Separate Property or Community?
Some stuff comes into a marriage but is intended only for one spouse. The most common examples of this type of separate property are:
- Gifts, and
- Inherited property.
In Sophie and Jackson’s case, Jackson’s mother gave him a beach house after the wedding. It was not a wedding present that was intended for both Sophie and Jackson. If Jackson maintains the house with his separate funds, the beach house typically will remain his separate property. The same principle holds true if Jackson had inherited the beach house from his mother.
Some types of separate property are more complicated than others. For example, one spouse might buy property after becoming legally separated. Generally, this would remain separate property. However, the situation is complicated. We strongly encourage you to talk with a California divorce attorney if you have any separate property that could be commingled with community property.
#3. Money-Making Types of Separate Property
To further complicate property division issues, some types of separate property are sources of income.
For example, let’s revisit Jackson’s beach house. He doesn’t like the beach, so he starts renting the property through Airbnb. Jackson keeps his rental income in a separate account and uses some of it for maintenance and insurance. If the beach house remains Jackson’s separate property, the income earned usually would remain his separate property.
However, the income from this type of separate property could become community property. The couple might use community funds to make repairs. Sophie might help decorate the house or develop marketing strategies. In this case, you really need an attorney to untangle the separate from the community.