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Legal separation rules clarified by California Supreme Court

Many people think of the dissolution of marriage as an event, started and completed on certain dates with clear differentiations between “married,” “separated” and “divorced.” Instead, it may more accurately be considered a process. Couples may separate, reunite and separate again before finally calling it quits. During divorce, they may need to remain under the same roof for financial reasons. Divorce can be so messy, in fact, that spouses may significantly disagree on when they actually separated.

Why are such dates important? In short, it’s because they can significantly impact property division and spousal support. California is a community property state, which basically means assets that either spouse acquires during the marriage belong equally to both spouses. As such, they can be included in the total assets and debts to be divided in divorce. Prior to a recent state Supreme Court ruling earlier this month, there was some ambiguity over the question of when a couple can be considered legally separated.

The case concerned a former California couple who disagreed over the date they separated. The wife claimed that they separated in mid 2006, and she filed for divorce in late 2008. However, the husband claimed that they did not separate until mid 2011.

Complicating matters was the fact that the couple continued to live in the same house until 2011. According to the wife, they essentially started acting like roommates rather than spouses, even parenting their children as though they were not a couple (separate vacations, etc.).

Lower courts had ruled in favor of the wife. But in a unanimous decision this month, the California Supreme Court reversed those rulings. The Court held that in California, spouses cannot be considered legally separated until they no longer share a residence. Each must also withhold at least some of their income from their spouse while divorce proceedings are occurring.

Obviously, the state Supreme Court’s decision will have a large impact on this couple’s property division, as they were not considered separated between 2006 and 2011. But the Court’s ruling will also have a significant impact on other cases as well, and will no doubt influence the decisions many couples make when deciding to separate.

Source: CBS Los Angeles, “California Supreme Court Weighs In On Marriage Separation,” July 20, 2015