California is a community property state, a distinction that may have significant estate planning consequences for couples who live here. When dealing with specifics assets, the first thing that must be determined is the classification of the property, whether it is community or separate. According to California Family Code § 760, community property is everything that the spouses bought or received during their marriage while living in California. It does not, however, include an inheritance or a gift made only to one spouse so long as the property is not co mingled. Separate property is everything that was purchased or received by either spouse prior to the marriage. It also includes inheritances or gifts made to only one spouse.
Once a classification of property has been made, the next question is how that classification will affect a couple’s estate-planning goals. Families are now more blended than ever. Individuals divorce and get re-married all the time. When one spouse is planning for their passing, they may want to leave certain items to a child from a previous marriage. Before a couple can finalize a plan distributing their estate, each spouse will have to consider the state’s law on property characterization due to the limits the law imposes on the transfer of marital property.
Although the distinction between community and separate property may be easy to understand, several decisions from California courts have muddied the legal waters. These decisions indicated that there are some ways in which separate property can become community property.
Couples can, by agreement, circumvent the community property laws. This is usually done by prenuptial agreement. As long as the agreement is valid, family courts will honor the parties’ decision. If you have questions about the impact of California property laws on your estate, you should discuss your case with a California estate-planning attorney. Estate-planning attorney John Palley at Meissner, Joseph & Palley, Inc. is a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust, and Probate Law. His office will be happy to assist you with any of your estate planning needs. Call today at 1-888-920-5983.