Basic Property Rights Law in California Divorces

Understanding the basic rules of property ownership in California is critical for anyone going through or contemplating a divorce or legal separation. Property may be owned by a spouse separately, meaning that it is his or hers alone, or it may be held as community property, which means that both spouses share it equally. It is important to understand the difference because, generally, a spouse has no right to any portion of the separate property of the other. On the other hand, California law provides for equitable division of community property.

Property acquired before a marriage or after a married couple separates is considered to be separate. In addition, property given to or inherited by a party during a marriage is considered to be separate. In most cases, a person has no right to the separate property of his or her spouse.

California law assumes that property acquired during a marriage is community property, which means that each spouse holds a one-half interest. Both spouses have an ownership right to one-half of community property, regardless of who actually acquired the property. In determining whether property is separate or community, the date of separation is critical. In fact, the date of separation is sometimes hotly contested for this reason. The date of separation is established, by law, as the date on which two things occurred: (1) one spouse subjectively made the decision that the marriage was over; and (2) that spouse took an objective step to implement his or her decision.

With titled assets, such as homes, cars, and boats, a second property law presumption may come into play. The California State Legislature has passed a law that the“owner of the legal title to property is presumed to be the owner of the full beneficial title”. This means that a court will assume that the name of the person on title to property is the full owner of that property. It takes strong evidence to overcome this presumption.

As you might imagine, the community property presumption and the legal title presumption can often be in tension with one another.

There are many nuances in California statutory and case law that impact property division, and the proper presentation of property issues can significantly affect your outcome. Judy Burger is experienced in complex property division matters and how to present those in family court most favorably to her clients. Please contact her today at (415) 259-6636.