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Whether a marriage has lasted months, years or decades, divorcing couples have often invested a great deal both financially and emotionally. Dividing two lives is not easy, and when a divorce involves children or potentially significant assets, the process often becomes even more complicated.

Divorcing couples in California should know that state law may impact how separating spouses divide and distribute shared property.

  1. What does it mean that California is a “community property” state?

California is one of nine U.S. states that consider most types of assets and debt that either partner acquires during marriage to be community property, with ownership shared 50/50 between spouses. During a divorce, all assets considered community property may be subject to equal distribution under state law.

In addition to physical property, such as vehicles, clothing, furniture and real estate, financial assets acquired during the marriage become part of the marital estate. This may include cash, joint or personal bank accounts, investments, life insurance policies and pension plans, regardless of whose name is on an account or title.

  1. What constitutes separate property?

Unless commingled with shared assets, property that either spouse acquired before marriage remains the sole property of that individual. Additionally, except when added to the marital estate, personal inheritances or gifts given to only one spouse remain separate property after divorce.

  1. Can separating couples come to their own arrangement?

Many couples are eager to avoid the cost, time, stress and potential publicity of a divorce trial. California law allows separating spouses to come to their own agreement about how to divide personal property and financial assets without going to court. However, even a nonlitigated divorce will eventually need the approval of a judge.

  1. What are the alternatives to litigation?

Mediation offers divorcing couples the chance to work with a neutral third-party advisor who can help explain California property division laws, ease tensions and suggest unique solutions for separating shared assets. When partners are willing to negotiate, collaborative divorce may also offer a simpler alternative to litigation.