California Supreme Court Defines Legal Separation for Divorcing Couples
Under California family law, the income and property each spouse acquires during a marriage is considered community property to be divided between them during a divorce. However, couples often separate years before they divorce, removing all their earnings after separation from consideration when determining community property. When the couple separates, each spouse gets to keep whatever they accumulate.
According to the Supreme Court guidelines, a couple that continues to reside in the same house cannot qualify as separated when dividing assets. The ruling reinforces a bright-line rule, which makes the establishment of individual residences the minimum requirement to legally define when a couple is separated and income and property are no longer shared.
The ruling provides some clarity to everyone involved in the divorce proceedings, so that there is no confusion or disagreement as to when a couple actually separates. The Supreme Court has prioritized living arrangements when deciding separation over other factors such as separate bank accounts or the care of children. However, the ruling does not address the situation where a spouse files for divorce or legal separation in family court but the parties continue to live together. In such a situation, it is likely that the parties would be considered separated because of the court filing.
The court made its ruling in the Alameda County Superior Court case of divorcing couple Keith and Sheryl Davis. According to court documents, Sheryl claimed they formally separated in 2006 when she declared the marriage was over. She said they began living as roommates in different bedrooms under the same roof for the sake of their children and had taken steps to separate their finances. Keith contended that the separation began in July 2011, when she moved out of their Castro Valley, California, home.
Sheryl argued that Keith was not entitled to a share of her earnings as the couple’s arrangement met the requirement of living separately during those five years, when she earned more than he did. However, the state Supreme Court ruled that her income until July 2011 was community property, of which Keith is now eligible to receive a share.
Although the Supreme Court ruling serves to avoid ambiguity, it does not take into account aspects such as the parenting responsibilities between an estranged couple, as well as financial considerations. One spouse may have to move out of the marital residence and find a new home as a prerequisite to establishing the date of separation, which could pose financial difficulties. Mediation can be helpful in cases that involve children and for resolving the many issues that arise from separation.
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