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California Community Property Laws

California is a well-known community property state. All property acquired during marriage is considered community property and subject to 50/50 division in the case of divorce. Marital property is significant at two times in a marriage: during a divorce or legal separation and when one spouse dies.

In California, if one spouse dies without a will ("intestate"), the other spouse inherits all the community property and one-half the decedent's separate property. California probate law prohibits disinheriting spouses unless they receive assets outside the will.

Like most community property states, California includes all property acquired during marriage in any division of property. This includes income earned during marriage and separate property mixed or commingled with the marital assets.

This article reviews the specifics of California laws on separate and community property. FindLaw's Community Property Overview and Divorce Property Division FAQ sections have additional information.

Community Property vs. Separate Property

California is one of nine community property states. All other states use equitable distribution in divorce settlements. Equitable division considers factors such as the duration of the marriage and the needs of each spouse during the division of community property.

In a California divorce, the courts divide all community property 50/50 between the parties. Community property may include:

  • All property acquired during the marriage, including real estate and intangible property
  • All income received by either spouse during the marriage, including passive income, interest, pension plans and retirement accounts, and stock dividends and options
  • Separate funds spent on community assets
  • Joint bank accounts (known as "commingling" of funds)
  • All debts incurred during the marriage

Separate property remains the spouse's personal property. California's rules on commingling property can change the character of property if it benefits the community.

A spouse's separate property may include:

  • Property acquired before the marriage and kept separate during the marriage
  • Gifts and bequests made to one spouse and not the married couple
  • Personal injury settlements may be separate property unless the recipient commingled the funds with community funds or paid for expenses until the parties settled (the judge has the discretion to award up to half of the settlement to whoever suffered the injuries)

Anything you acquire after a legal separation is separate property, even if neither spouse has filed for divorce. The date of separation is when a spouse indicates the marriage is over and performs actions consistent with ending the marriage.

Prenuptial agreements and postnuptial agreements are the safest way for couples to protect their separate property. They can prevent any separate property from becoming community property.

Community Debts

The divorce process treats debts like all other marital property. Courts divide debts acquired during the marriage equally, like assets. If the marital debt exceeds marital assets, judges may assign debts to the spouse better able to pay.

Student loans are the separate property of the spouse who acquired them, even if obtained during marriage. The loan and education benefit the individual, not the marriage (California Family Code § 2641). The debt may be equally divided if:

  • One spouse contributed to the other spouse's education and training
  • The couple "substantially benefited" from the education, training, or loan
  • The education "substantially reduced" the spouse's need for alimony or spousal support

One of these exceptions must be true to overcome the presumption and include student loan debt in the division of assets and debts.

Note: State laws are subject to change through the passage of new legislation, court rulings (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. FindLaw strives to provide the most current information available. Consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) before making any legal decision.

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Have Questions About California's Community Property Laws? Ask an Attorney

Determining community and separate property shouldn’t wait until your divorce. If you have questions about California's community property laws or would like help with your divorce or separation, contact a family law attorney in your area.

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