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Who Gets Property in a CA Divorce if My Spouse’s Name Is On the Title?

A common misunderstanding in California divorces, especially for those who have not yet consulted with an attorney, is to believe that each spouse will take the property that they themselves purchased. Specifically, they believe that looking at which spouse’s name is on “the title,” whether that be a physical title as in the case of a vehicle or real estate, or simply the name on a sales or credit card receipt, will determine who gets to keep it.  This is incorrect.

Although the name of the person on the title can have an impact on who receives the property in some limited cases, the name on the title will not necessarily determine which spouse receives that property in most cases. What is far more important is whether the property is community property or separate property, regardless of whose name (or both names) is on the title.

How Community Property Standards Trump Title Designations

An overriding principle in California family law is the concept of “community property.” California law says that any property that is acquired with earnings accrued the marriage (from the date of the wedding to the date that at least one party decided to end the marriage) is considered community property, and such property is to be split 50/50 between the parties, regardless of who earned it.

For example, if one spouse went out and bought a boat in his name only with a bonus he earned during the marriage, that boat will be considered community property even if he alone earned the bonus, shopped for the boat, and put the boat’s title in his or her name. Thus, both spouses would have a 50% financial interest in the boat, regardless of what the title says.

Community property is contrasted with separate property, which is property that either spouse earned or acquired with earnings before the marriage (or after the date of separation) or was gifted to that spouse solely. Separate property is given to that spouse solely in a divorce. Thus, a boat bought with earnings made entirely after the date of separation or before the marriage would be separate property belonging to that spouse only.

Some Exceptions to the Community Property Title Standards

As with many aspects of California family law, there are indeed exceptions to this general rule. While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the more common exceptions:

  • Property held by a married woman in her name only which was acquired prior to 1975
  • Property which has been transmuted from community property to separate property via a written agreement between both spouses that meets certain legal formalities
  • Certain types of federal-based property such as federal savings bonds held by one spouse, veteran’s disability benefits, military insurance policies, social security benefits, some federal employee benefits, etc.

What is and is not considered community property can be quite complex, and parties are encouraged to speak with an experienced California family law attorney to understand how property will be treated in their particular situations.

Get Answers to Your California Family Law Questions

At Kearney | Baker in Pasadena, we represent spouses through all aspects of the dissolution/divorce process. Our partners, Brian A. Baker and Gary W. Kearney, are both Family Law Specialists, as certified by the California State Bar. To schedule a consultation regarding any questions about family law in California, contact one of the family law attorneys at Kearney | Baker today at 626-768-2945.

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