Divorce is governed by state law. If the couple lived in California during their marriage, their property division and other issues must be decided under California law.
But what if the couple didn’t always live in California? If a couple lived in another state during part of their marriage, it could affect property division in their divorce. Differences in state law could complicate the process.
Community property vs. equitable distribution
For the purposes of divorce, California is a community property state. This means that nearly all property and debts acquired by the couple during their marriage are considered to be jointly owned by the two spouses. In the property division process, the law starts with the assumption that all property and debts should be split 50-50 between the spouses.
Several other states, especially in the West, also follow the community property model, but most states follow another model known as equitable distribution. These states refer to property and debts acquired during the marriage as the marital property, and their laws call for a division of marital property that meets guidelines of fairness.
To see how these differences in state law can play out, imagine a married couple who lived in Minnesota for 10 years, acquiring property and debts there, before moving to California. They lived together in California for another 10 years, where they acquired new property and debts, before deciding to divorce. In this divorce, the property division process involves both Minnesota and California law.
The good news is that California has a solution for this issue. If property or debts acquired in another state would have been considered community property under California law, California regards them as “quasi-community property.” Rather than applying the law of one state to part of a couple’s property and California law to the other part of their property, California courts deal with the quasi-community property as if it had been acquired in California.
The bad news is that, in practice, property division is often much more complicated than this explanation makes it out to be. Whether it’s a matter of community property or equitable distribution law, property division usually involves extensive negotiation. It’s important to get help from an experienced family law attorney.