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California Supreme Court ruling clarifies when separation occurs

Often when a couple determines that their marriage is over, one moves out of the family home. In some cases, particularly when there are children involved, the two remain under one roof for a time. If the two are able to get along, this can provide some stability for the kids. Given the cost of housing in California, it may even be a financial necessity.

That decision, however, can make the divorce proceedings more complicated. One Castro Valley couple learned that the hard way. The spouses, who are now divorced, have been arguing in court for some time over exactly when they separated.

The date of separation impacts how property is to be split, since California is a community property state. Under the law, any earnings and property that either spouse acquires during the marriage is generally considered community property.

The wife said that she asked her husband for a divorce back in 2006 and filed for divorce two years later. However, she did not move out of the home until 2011. She contended that they lived together for the children's sake. She argued, however, that their legal separation began in 2006.

The husband, however, argued that they weren't separated until she actually moved out in July 2011. Therefore, he sought an equal share of her earnings until that date. According to the man's attorney, the wife earned "significantly more" than he did.

An Alameda County court and an appeals court sided with the wife, despite a 2002 appeals court ruling in another case that "living apart physically is an indispensable threshold requirement to separation." However, earlier this month, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the husband's favor. The justices determined that in order for one spouse to claim earnings as separate property, the couple must have been living in separate residences.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who wrote the decision, noted that the California Family Code "promotes fairness by providing a measure of predictability to the parties and their attorneys, as well as clear guidance to judges. The husband's lawyer said this ruling should be helpful because "people won't be guessing as to when they are separated."

When one or both spouses has made the decision to end the marriage, it's essential to understand the legal impact that all of your actions will have upon your divorce, including things like property division and child custody.

Source: Pleasanton Weekly, "State Supreme Court rules divorcing spouses must live apart to claim separate property," Julia Cheever, Bay City News, July 22, 2015

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