Property and debt division in California divorce

California law provides for an EQUAL division of any and all property and debt acquired during the time of your marriage. Exceptions to this are inheritances, which are separate, as well as student loans, which are separate debts. Note that if you are unaware of the acquisition of the property or debt, then this does NOT exempt you from the equal division. So, this means that if your spouse acquired credit card debt in the amount of thousands of dollars that you knew nothing about, you still have to share the payment of that debt with your spouse at divorce.

Also, note that title to the property is not the relevant issue, but rather the time you acquired the property. If you have a car, for example, that you bought while you were married but only put the husband’s name on it, then that car is still community property and subject to equal division.

Finally, “equal division” does not mean that we are dividing each and every asset, one by one. What we’re doing, rather, is dividing the value of your property. For example, if you have a house with equity in the amount of $100,000 and the wife has a community property pension in the amount of $100,000, then the husband can take the house in exchange for giving up any right he has to his wife’s pension. Generally, if one spouse can afford to keep an asset, then the court will not order its sale.

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Dissolution: issues in a California divorce

In every divorce (or dissolution) case, the court has a universe of issues it may resolve. The issues are common to most cases in that most cases have all of them, but some omit a couple. The issues are child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, property and debt division, attorney fees, and status. We’ll examine each of these in detail, but here’s an overview:

There are two aspects of the non-financial issues with your child (and I say child with the understanding that many folks have more than one child): custody and visitation (or parenting time). There is physical and legal custody, and you can have joint custody or sole custody (for one parent). Parenting plans vary like personalities. Some parents share parenting time equally and fluidly with few specifics written down. Some parents have to have every detail recorded in excruciating detail. There are some “standard” parenting plans, but by no means are they uniform.

Child and spousal support are also issues in a divorce case. Support is calculated using a software program adopted by the State of California. You can find it for free here: Support Calculations. Permanent, or long-term, spousal support is calculated using a variety of qualitative factors not necessarily related to the software, however.

The court will also divide all property and debt you and your spouse acquired during your marriage. This includes any real property, or homes, as well as personal property, vehicles, bank and stock accounts, 401Ks and pension/retirement accounts, and any and all debt. California law provides for EQUAL division of all property and debt.

The court can and will also resolve the issue of attorney fees, particularly if the incomes of the spouses are very different. If one spouse makes the majority of the money in the household, the court will likely order that spouse to pay the majority of the attorney fees.

Finally, there is the issue of your status. Your status is whether you are divorced or single. You can separate, or bifurcate, the issue of your status and become divorced if you feel your case is taking too long. Divorce cases can last several years. Most often, your status is dissolved, making you a single person, at the resolution of your case. The earliest this can happen is six months and one day from the time the Petition was served on the Respondent.

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California divorce: Dividing debt

Since yesterday we were talking about dividing personal property in divorce, today I thought we could talk about dividing debt.  Dividing debt in divorce is a big issue these days as many couples find themselves coming away from marriages without any assets at all, and in some cases, with only debt.  There are a few issues that commonly come up when it comes to dividing debt in divorce: how to handle debt during the divorce, how to handle debt of one spouse or debt unknown to the other spouse, and how debt is handled post-divorce when one spouse agrees to service the debt but both names remain.

  1. In California, once the Petition is filed (for Petitioner) and served (for Respondent), both parties become subject to restraining orders preventing them from acquiring or disposing of property of debt other than in the “ordinary course of business.”  Basically, the parties should continue to service their debt and pay their bills as they have in the past, before the divorce was filed.
  2. The question often arises about debt one party has incurred (and the other party doesn’t want to pay) or one party’s lack of ability to pay the couple’s debt. This is both a common and a difficult situation.  The debt is most likely to be a joint debt, whether it’s a credit card or other debt, so any non-payment is going to adversely affect both  If you can pay at all?  Do pay.  Don’t harm your own credit score to get back at  your spouse – it’s not worth it.
  3. Another question that comes up is that one spouse may have incurred debt, such as credit card debt, that the other spouse is unaware of.  Unfortunately, in California, any and all property and debt acquired during the marriage is community property, and divided equally upon divorce, regardless of whether it was known to the other spouse.  There are exceptions in the case of, for example, the unknown credit card was used to pay for an extra-marital affair, but this can be hard to prove.
  4. At the end of the divorce, you and your spouse may agree to divide the bills, but in the case of a credit card, both names can remain on the card.  This means that if the payor decides not to pay or defaults, then the company is going to come after the non-paying spouse for payment.  This is unavoidable, as banks and credit card companies will go after anyone to get their payment.  Your recourse, as non-paying spouse, is to send the company a copy of the Judgment or Marital Settlement Agreement that says you are not liable for the debt, and that should be the end of it.  But you do want to make sure that your Judgment includes who pays for what debts so that you have this on hand should there be a problem in the future.

One final comment on joint debt and credit cards in divorce: once the papers are filed, unless you really need the cards, close them.  Do not allow either spouse to use the joint credit cards, because untangling that mess in the divorce, when both spouses use a joint credit card, is a nightmare.

California Divorce: How to divide the stuff, from the wedding ring to the collectibles to the couch

Lawyers and judges do not like to get into the business of dividing a couple’s personal property in divorce.  The value of your personal property when you get divorced is not the price it would take to replace what you have, but rather the garage sale price.  So, when you value your personal items (furnishings, kitchen items, jewelry, personal items, etc.), think of holding a large garage sale where everything in your house is for sale.  Then imagine at the end of the day, the house is empty.  How much money do you think would be in the tin box at the end of the day?

For most couples, this doesn’t amount to more than a few thousand dollars, and since each party generally takes some of the personal items, frequently there isn’t any kind of equalization in the divorce.

Of course, if you have valuable antiques, jewelry, or collections, then there can be disputes.  The first dispute is often the worth of the collection.  Husband says his gun collection is worthless because none of the guns work.  Wife says it’s worth tens of thousands because of what the couple paid for it.  The answer is generally to get an independent appraisal and go from there.  The item or collection can be sold and the proceeds split, or one party can buy out the other party’s interest by paying half the value.

Another common question involves gifts.  Gifts given to one spouse are that spouse’s separate property.  Often the biggest gift is that of the engagement ring.  Upon divorce, the wife keeps the engagement ring as hers, regardless of whether the ring is Husband’s grandmother’s.

Finally, when attorneys and courts do not generally want to get into the division of personal property, what is a couple to do?  The best way, I think, is for each spouse to get a different color of Post-It.  Each spouse then goes around the house and ‘tags’ the items they want.  Then at the end, only those items with two Post-Its on them are items of contention. This makes it easy to identify what items need to be discussed without having to discuss every item – it narrows the field, which can reduce the conflict.

How did you divide your personal items when you divorced?

Retirement planning and dividing assets in California divorce

When a couple is dividing their assets in a divorce case, it’s easy to just look at the numbers on the page and divide them. For example, say we have two stock accounts. Let’s have $100,000 in each account. It can be easy to say that they each take one of the accounts and call it even. But, is it?

It could be, but it’s more likely not. If the couple has two accounts, it’s likely that they have them for a reason. For example, maybe one is intended for the long-term and one is a shorter-term investment. If the couple does not evaluate the projections of each of the accounts, one of them could be left holding the short stick.

During the divorce process, however, you can get very tired of negotiating, of waiting, and of just being in the middle of it all. Evaluating the accounts is just another step that you may think really won’t make a big difference. But ask any financial advisor – it DOES matter, and while you may not care now, you WILL later, particularly if you’re the one with the short stick.

As a couple builds their life, they make plans for their retirement. A smart plan has several components, and the couple is likely thinking not only of their own retirement, but also their children’s college expenses, when each of them will retire, and what kind of lifestyle they’re planning on. They may have compromised during the marriage, but at the divorce, each individual needs to come up with their own plan for these issues. Ensuring that the division of the assets is truly equal, and not just the same dollar figure, will be the first step.

Dividing a business in California divorce

When one spouse has a small business, it can become a difficult issue to divide at divorce.  Everything the couple acquires during the marriage is community property, so if the business was started after the marriage, then the business is community property and must be divided in divorce.  Generally this means that the business is valued, and the spouse working in the business buys out the interest of the other spouse.  It is the value of the business that is generally the point of contention in the divorce.  Further complicating things is when the business was started before the marriage and continued during the marriage, as the amount of growth in the business during the time of the marriage must be valued and divided – with the same attendant conflicts over how to determine this value.

Often, it is the non-working spouse (by non-working, I mean not working in the business. This spouse may very well be working, but not as an owner of the business in question) who believes that the business is worth a great deal more than the working spouse thinks.  Since there are dozens of ways to value a business, this can  become a war of the experts in divorce court.  In addition, a business can be derailed by the distraction of the divorce as well as the ultimate financial payout.

There are ways to avoid this, but generally they involve planning.  First, you can create a pre-nuptial or post-nuptial  agreement that provides for the division of the business in the event of divorce, and at least can specify how the business will be valued so that this is an argument you can avoid.  Life insurance can be used as a protection against both the death of the working spouse or in the event of a divorce.  In business, we buy insurance to protect injuries on our property, for our employees, and for our potential legal liability, but forget that we may need insurance in case we are unable to work or are in the process of divorce.

Every small business owner should take steps to protect themselves, their business and their family in the case of divorce or death.  A financial advisor, divorce and estate planning attorney can help.