Dividing Personal Property in a California Divorce

Getting a divorce is tough, both emotionally and legally. Understanding the rules about how to divide property is challenging, especially given that California is in the minority as a community property state. Let's take a closer look at dividing personal property in a California divorce.

California is a community property state

When a couple in California gets divorced, they must go through a process known as division of community property. In this process, their assets and liabilities are divided equally between the two of them. 

In California and other community property states, most assets and liabilities acquired during the marriage are considered to be community property. This means that each spouse has equal ownership of everything acquired during the marriage, and the property must be distributed equally between the divorcing couple.

  • Community property is any type of asset that is considered to be owned by both spouses. This includes things like homes, businesses, and retirement accounts. 
  • Separate property is any asset considered to be owned by only one spouse. This includes things like inheritance money and gifts from family members. These assets will not be divided between the two parties in a divorce.

California is not an equitable distribution state

California is not an equitable distribution state. Rather, it is a community property state. In equitable distribution states, property is divided in a way that is “fair and equitable.” This doesn't necessarily mean that each person gets an even split of the assets.

For example, if one spouse has been at home taking care of the children while the other has been working, the stay-at-home spouse may be awarded a larger portion of the assets in an equitable distribution state. Factors such as income, debt, and contributions to the marriage all figure in the calculation.

Types of property that may be divided in a California divorce

Here are some examples of property subject to division in a divorce in California:

  • Household furniture and items
  • Bank accounts
  • Stocks and bonds, stock warrants, and stock options
  • Intangible assets like cryptocurrency
  • Copyrights, patents, and licenses
  • Royalties
  • Motor vehicles, aircraft, and boats, along with associated equipment
  • Collectibles such as paintings, other artwork, rare books, coins, stamps, antiques, jewelry, and musical instruments
  • Safe-deposit box contents
  • Club memberships
  • Hotel points and frequent flier miles
  • Accrued vacation from an employer
  • Judgments due to a party or potential civil claims

In a divorce in California, bank accounts would typically be split evenly between the two spouses. This means that if you have a joint account with your spouse, it would be divided in half, with each spouse receiving an equal share. If you have individual bank accounts, they may be kept separate.

Let's consider another example using hotel points. Maybe your spouse spent a lot of time traveling during your marriage and racked up thousands of hotel points. Your spouse might not think you should get any of the points since they were the one traveling and accruing them. However, because California is a community property state, you have a right to half of those hotel points.

How do you assess the value of your property?

You'll need to hire an appraiser. An appraiser will come in and review every luxury or high-value item, giving you and the court a firm idea of the value of each item and how items should be divided in divorce.

Appraisers are not cheap, so divorcing couples tend to use them only for expensive items. Think of your house, car, expensive jewelry, and similar items.

“Garage sale” items

Items such as furniture and electronics are not generally appraised in a divorce. Does this mean they have no value? No. They're informally appraised using “garage sale value.”

What is garage sale value? It’s essentially your estimation of what the items would be worth if you sold them in a garage sale. Consider how much you might get selling them online, too. This will give you a good idea of how much value you should place on each item. 

It would cost more to hire an appraiser for garage sale items than what they’re actually worth. Thus, it makes sense to provide your own “garage sale estimate” for these items.

How to create a property spreadsheet

Creating a spreadsheet that lists all of your property can help you visualize what must be divided. It will also help you break down which items are subject to division, which items you get to keep for yourself, and the value of each item so you know if you're getting an equal share of the marital assets.

  1.  Make a spreadsheet, and list all or most of your property.
  2.  Any items on the list that were gifts are separate property and belong to the person to whom they were gifted. Note this on the spreadsheet.
  3.  Make two copies of your spreadsheet. Each spouse should then go through it and mark which items they would like to have.
  4.  If disputes arise over certain items, go through those items, and take turns choosing.
  5.  Try to work together to split everything as evenly as possible.
  6.  Note that if there are disputes about the values of personal property, either spouse can offer opinion testimony on the value.

How to get what you want in a divorce settlement negotiation

When it comes to dividing up property during a divorce, there is often a lot of give and take involved. Both parties want to come away satisfied and not feeling like they got the short straw. Divorce negotiations go smoothly in some cases. In others, they are quite contentious.

Remember that a successful divorce settlement requires compromise. Each side must be willing to make some sacrifices. For example, one spouse may have to agree to pay a bit more in alimony or child support, while the other may have to give up their right to part of the marital home.

Recommended reading: How to Slay Your Divorce Negotiations Like a Seasoned Pro

Getting help with property division in California

Finally, it is worth noting that hiring a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) can be helpful in getting a better understanding of what your financial situation will look like post-divorce. This information can then be used to negotiate a fair settlement. Hello Divorce offers affordable CDFA sessions as well as divorce mediation services, both of which can help you divide your assets efficiently as you negotiate the terms of your divorce.