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Who Keeps the Family Car After a Divorce?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

No matter what the circumstances leading up to a divorce, it's common to wonder: Who gets what? And, especially, who gets the family car?

While this seems like it would be a simple question, the answer could depend on a variety of factors, like who bought the car, when they bought it, and even what state you live in. Here's a look at some state divorce laws, and how they might impact who gets the car after a divorce.

Common Law States

The majority of states use "common law" principles to determine the ownership of marital property. The common law system says that any property acquired by one member of a married couple is owned completely and solely by that person. But, if the title or deed is put in the names of both spouses, that property would belong to both, equally.

For example, if you buy a car and put it just in your name, that car belongs to just to you. If you buy a car and put it in both you and your spouse's name, then the car belongs to both of you.

Community Property States

Community property states, on the other hand -- like Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin -- treat all assets acquired during the marriage are as "community property," equally owned by both spouses. (Property owned by just one spouse before the marriage, or inherited by or given to just one spouse before or during the marriage remains "separate property" and owned solely by that spouse.) So money either spouse earned during the marriage and things bought with money either spouse earned during the marriage are community property.

For instance, let's say you've been married for ten years. You work as a successful doctor and use your earnings to buy a car. Even though you used "your" money, the car is now community property, and both you and your spouse own the car equally.

Splitting the Car

So if you bought the car before the marriage, or it's only in your name and you live in a common law state, the car will generally be yours. But what happens if the car legally belongs to both of you? Well, you have a few options.

If you and your ex are on amicable enough terms, you can draft a property settlement agreement that lays out who will own what after the divorce. If you're intent on keeping the car, you can ask that your ex grant you sole title, perhaps in exchange for other items like furniture. If there's a battle over the car, the court may force one party to buy out the other spouse's stake in the car. (Although, if there are still payments owed on the car, one of you could see it as a debt you'd be happy to get rid of.)

Not all divorces are alike, and property division questions can get complicated -- legally and emotionally. For the best advice sorting out issues with your divorce, contact an experienced divorce attorney in your area.

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