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What is Community Property? Understanding Divorce Property Laws

Understanding community property laws and how they differ from equitable distribution can greatly affect the outcome of a divorce. Knowing which assets are shared and which remain separate can save both time and heartache.
Going through a divorce can be tough and knowing the rules about property in your state can really help. One law, or rule you might hear about is ‘community property’. So, what does that mean and how does it change things for you?  Grab a cup of coffee and let’s dive in.

Nine States With Community Property

There are nine states in the U.S. where community property rules reign supreme:
  1. Arizona
  2. California
  3. Idaho
  4. Louisiana
  5. Nevada
  6. New Mexico
  7. Texas
  8. Washington
  9. Wisconsin
In these states, community property laws dictate how marital assets and debts get divided during a divorce. Generally speaking, property acquired during the marriage belongs to both spouses equally, regardless of who earned it.

Community Property

At its base, community property is about equal sharing. Anything either spouse acquires during the marriage, from salaries to retirement benefits, usually counts as community property. If John buys a car while married, even if he uses his paycheck to purchase it, it’s still considered shared property with his spouse, Jane. The principle is simple: what’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is ours. There are exceptions, of course. Gifts and inheritances are usually considered separate property (we’ll touch on that soon). But understanding this concept is essential, especially if you’re residing in a community property state. Additionally, there are pre-marital (pre-nuptial) agreements and post-marital (post-nuptial) agreements that can modify how the rules of community property apply in individual circumstances.

Separate Property

Separate property is the opposite side of the coin. It’s anything owned by a spouse before the marriage and, in most cases, remains their individual property after marriage. Let’s imagine Jane inherited a family heirloom, a grand piano, before she married John. That piano remains her separate property throughout their marriage. Additionally, gifts received by one spouse (think birthday or anniversary presents) are typically considered separate property. However, things can get a tad complicated. For instance, if Jane uses marital funds to restore and maintain that grand piano, it might blur the lines between separate and community property. If you’re unsure about the classification of certain assets, it might be a good idea to chat with a professional. A lawyer consultation can clear up any gray areas.

Do other states have community property laws?

Outside of the nine states mentioned, the remaining U.S. states follow ‘equitable distribution’ laws. This doesn’t mean a 50-50 split, but rather a fair or equitable distribution based on several factors like the duration of the marriage, each spouse’s financial situation, and contributions to the marital home.

What are the divorce property laws in other states?

In states that follow equitable distribution, the court has more discretion. Instead of splitting everything in half, judges consider a range of factors in dividing the assets of the couple.  This approach aims to ensure that the division is fair, though not necessarily equal. So, how is this fairness determined? Courts typically consider several factors, including:
  • Duration of the Marriage:

    A longer marriage might result in a more balanced distribution, considering the joint efforts over time.
  • Economic Situation:

    If one spouse has a higher earning potential or has more assets, it may be factored in.
  • Contributions to the Marriage:

    This isn’t just about money. Did one spouse stay at home to care for the family or give up career opportunities? These contributions are considered.
  • Assets Brought into the Marriage:

    Things like property or savings that one spouse had before the marriage might be viewed differently from what was acquired together.
The goal here is to ensure both parties walk away in a stable economic position. It’s not about making everything equal but ensuring neither party is left at a significant disadvantage. If you’re approaching a divorce in a non-community property jurisdiction, you should familiarize yourself with how equitable distribution works in your specific state. Seeking advice from legal professionals can offer clarity and guide your decisions. Remember, equitable distribution aims to make property division during divorce as fair as possible. It’s not a half-and-half cut but a tailored approach that considers the unique aspects of each marriage.

Wait – do I need an accountant for my divorce?

When people decide to get a divorce, they usually think of getting a lawyer to help with all the legal stuff. But there’s another person who can be super helpful, and that’s an accountant. An accountant can be invaluable, especially if there are substantial assets or complicated financial situations involved. They can provide clarity on tax implications, evaluate the worth of assets, and offer a clear financial picture. Divorce means figuring out who gets what, like money, property, and other things both people might own. An accountant helps make sense of all this, making sure everything is counted and split fairly. They can also point out things you might forget, like savings or plans for retirement. And don’t forget taxes. When splitting things in a divorce, some of your choices can affect how much tax you might pay later on. For example, who keeps the house, how you split up savings, and who claims the children as dependents on their tax returns. After the divorce, managing your money and tax implications change. An accountant can help you plan your budget, so you know how to handle your money moving forward. An accountant might not be the first person you think of, but they’re super important. They help you understand and make smart money choices during and after the divorce. So, as you go through the divorce process, think about getting an accountant to help out. It could make things a lot clearer and easier for you. If you’re grappling with this decision, a divorce life coach might provide some guidance. Plus, don’t forget to keep your mental and physical health in check; services like fitness and nutrition and parenting guidance can be lifesavers during these challenging times.


Understanding community property laws and how they differ from equitable distribution can greatly affect the outcome of a divorce. Knowing which assets are shared and which remain separate can save both time and heartache. When in doubt, seek advice. Whether it’s legal, financial, or emotional, resources are out there, like those at Divorce Plus, to help you navigate your journey. Remember, divorce is not just a legal process, but an emotional and physical one as well. Stay informed, seek support, and prioritize your well-being throughout.
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