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|The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (November 2013)|
Community property is a marital property regime that originated in civil law jurisdictions and is now also found in some common law jurisdictions. The states of the United States that recognize community property are primarily in the West; it was inherited from Mexico's ganancial community system, which itself was inherited from Spanish law (a Roman-derived civil law system) and ultimately from the Visigoths. While under Spanish rule Louisiana adopted the ganancial community system of acquests and gains, which replaced the traditional French community of movables and acquests in its civil law system.
In a community property jurisdiction, most property acquired during the marriage (except for gifts or inheritances)—the community, or communio bonorum—is owned jointly by both spouses and is divided upon divorce, annulment, or death. Joint ownership is automatically presumed by law in the absence of specific evidence that would point to a contrary conclusion for a particular piece of property.
Division of community property may take place by item, by splitting all items or by value. In some jurisdictions, such as California, a 50/50 division of community property is strictly mandated by statute, meaning that the focus then shifts to whether particular items are to be classified as community or separate property. In other jurisdictions, such as Texas, a divorce court may decree an "equitable distribution" of community property, which may result in an unequal division of such. In non-community property states property may be divided by equitable distribution. Generally speaking, the property that each partner brings into the marriage or receives by gift, bequest or devise during marriage is called separate property (i.e., not community property). See division of property. Division of community debts may not be the same as division of community property. For example, in California, community property is required to be divided "equally" while community debt is required to be divided "equitably".
Property that is owned by one spouse before the marriage is the separate property of that spouse, unless the property is "transmuted" into community property. The rules for this vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
The community property system is usually justified by the pragmatic recognition that such joint ownership recognizes the theoretically equal contributions of both spouses to the creation and operation of the family unit, a basic component of civil society. The countervailing majority view in most U.S. states as well as federal law (based on traditional American family values and gender roles) is that marriage is a sacred compact in which a man assumes a "deeply rooted" moral obligation to support his wife and child, while community property essentially reduces marriage to an "amoral business relationship."
In the United States there are nine community property states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. While not a community property state, Alaska does allow couples to opt into a community property arrangement; property is separate property unless both parties agree to make it community property through a community property agreement or a community property trust. The territory of Puerto Rico allows property to be owned as community property also as do several Native American jurisdictions. In the case of Puerto Rico, the island had been under community property law since its inception to the Spanish Crown upon its discovery in 1493.
If property is held as community property, each spouse technically owns an undivided one-half interest in the property. This type of ownership applies to most property acquired by each spouse during the course of the marriage. It generally does not apply to property acquired prior to the marriage or to property acquired by gift or inheritance during the marriage. After a divorce, community property is divided equally in some states and according to the discretion of the court in the other states.
It is extremely important to bear in mind that there are no two community property states with exactly the same laws on the subject. The statutes or judicial decisions in one state may be completely opposite to those of another state on a particular legal issue. For example, in some community property states (so-called "American Rule" states), income from separate property is also separate. In others (so-called "Civil Law" states), the income from separate property is community property. The right of a creditor to reach community property in satisfaction of a debt or other obligation incurred by one or both of the spouses also varies from state to state.
Community property has certain federal tax implications, which the Internal Revenue Service discusses in its Publication 555. In general, community property may result in lower federal capital gain taxes after the death of one spouse when the surviving spouse then sells the property. Some states have created a newer form of community property, called "community property with right of survivorship." This form of holding title has some similarities to joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The rules and effect of holding title as community property (or another form of concurrent ownership) vary from state to state.
Because community property law affects the property of all married persons in the states in which it is in effect, it can have substantial consequences upon dissolution of the marriage from the perspective of the spouse forced to share a valuable asset that he or she thought was separate property. One of the most spectacular examples of this in recent memory was the 2011 Los Angeles Dodgers ownership dispute, in which Frank McCourt paid his ex-wife Jamie McCourt about $130 million to avoid a trial over whether the Los Angeles Dodgers were actually community property after the trial court ruled that the McCourts' prenuptial agreement was invalid. Indeed, one sign of community property's importance is that the states of Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, and Texas have made it a mandatory subject on their bar examinations, so that all lawyers in those states will be able to educate their clients appropriately.
Often a new couple acquires a family residence. If the marriage terminates in subsequent years, there can be difficult community property problems to solve. For instance, often there is a contribution of separate property; or legal title may be held in the name of one party and not the other. There may also have been an inheritance or substantial gift from the family of one of the spouses during the marriage, whose proceeds were used to buy a property or pay down a mortgage. Case law and applicable formulas vary among community property jurisdictions to apply to these and many other situations, to determine and divide community and separate property interest in such a residence and other property.
Community property issues often arise in divorce proceedings and disputes after the death of one spouse. These disputes can often be avoided by proper estate planning during the spouses' joint lifetime. This may or may not involve probate proceedings. Property acquired before marriage is separate and belongs to the spouse who acquired it. Property acquired during marriage is presumed to belong to the community estate except if acquired by inheritance or gift, or by exchange for other separate property. This definition leads to numerous issues that can be difficult to ascertain. For instance, where a spouse owns a business when marrying, it is clearly separate at that time. But if the business grows during the marriage, then what of the additional property acquired during marriage? Do they not result from labor of the spouses? Were some of the funds that were used to pay for the property community funds while a portion of the funds were separate property?
Community property may consist of property of all types, including real property ("immovable property" in civil law jurisdictions) and personal property ("movable property" in civil law jurisdictions) such as accounts in financial institutes, stocks, bonds, and cash.
A pension or annuity may have first been acquired before a marriage. But if contributions are made with community property during marriage, then proceeds are partly separate property and partly community property. Upon divorce or death of a party to the marriage, there are rules for apportionment.
Options are also difficult to ascertain. A stock option is a right to purchase shares of a company at a fixed price. Companies with growth potential sometimes award stock options as compensation to employees, during times when there is not enough money to pay a suitable salary. By accepting a stock option for compensation, an employee invests his or her own trust in the belief that he or she will help make the company acquire a higher value. Thereafter, the employee works and contributes value to the company. If the company later acquires a higher share valuation, then the employee may "cash in" his options by selling them at the fair market value. The employee's trust in this future value motivates his work without immediate compensation. That effort has value. If the marriage is terminated before the shares are cashed in, then the parties must decide how to apportion the community property portion of the options. This can be difficult. Case law precedents are not yet available for all situations involving stock options.
Quasi-community property is a concept recognized by some community property states. For example, in California, quasi-community property is defined by statute as
"all real or personal property, wherever situated, acquired before or after the operative
date of this code in any of the following ways:
(a) By either spouse while domiciled elsewhere which would have been community property if the spouse who acquired the property had been domiciled in this state at the time of its acquisition.
(b) In exchange for real or personal property, wherever situated, which would have been community property if the spouse who acquiredthe property so exchanged had been domiciled in this state at the time of its acquisition.
Typically, such property is treated as if it were community property at the time of divorce or death of a spouse, but in California, at least, property acquired while married and domiciled in a non-community property jurisdiction does not become community property just because the married parties move to a community property jurisdiction. It is the new event of divorce or death while domiciled in the community property state that allows that state to treat such property as quasi-community property. As of 2007[update], only Washington, California, New Mexico and Arizona have such laws.