California law clearly provides that community property is to be divided between the spouses in divorce. Community property is further identified as assets and debts acquired during the length of the marriage, with some exceptions. But despite the law’s seeming clarity, questions arise as to the intent and meaning of certain family code provisions relating to property division. When this happens, courts are often asked to step in and interpret the language in order to give full effect to the legislative purpose. It is important to fully understand how these provisions may affect your divorce case. The result could have a significant impact on your financial position going forward. Parties considering divorce are encouraged to consult with an experienced family law attorney from the San Diego area as soon as possible.
The California Supreme Court recently agreed to review an appellate court opinion that addressed the interpretation of Family Code Section 771(a). The statute provides, in pertinent part: “[t]he earnings and accumulations of a spouse . . . while living separate and apart from the other spouse, are the separate property of the spouse.” In this case, the parties were married in 1993. In 2006, the wife decided she was finished with the marriage and undertook certain tasks to separate the couple’s finances. She testified that they were simply “roommates” at this point. The wife filed for divorce in December 2008 and listed June 1, 2006 as the date of separation. The husband disagreed and listed January 2, 2009 as the date of separation – a few days after the wife filed the petition for divorce. He further modified that date to reflect July 1, 2011, the date the wife moved out of the marital home.
The trial court concluded that the date of separation was June 1, 2006, and the court of appeals affirmed, disagreeing with an earlier decision (In re Marriage of Norviel), which held that physically living apart is “an indispensable threshold requirement” for separation to be effective under Section 771(a). The highest court in the state granted review to resolve the conflict concerning the statutory interpretation.
The husband argued that spouses cannot “live separate and apart” within the meaning of the statute when they continue to share a residence, as they did here until 2011. The wife argued that no one fact is determinative. Instead, she claimed that the court should look at all of the evidence – the totality of the circumstances – in making a determination as to the date of separation. The court conducted a lengthy review of the history of Section 771, including its earliest incarnation and evolution through today. The court looked at the intent of the lawmakers and the plain language of the statute, in addition to “extrinsic aids,” to shed light on the legislative intent.
The court first concluded that the common and ordinary meaning of the language – “living separate and apart” – contemplates the parties’ occupation of separate residences. Furthermore, the court pointed out that the Norviel opinion is the correct one and that living apart is an indispensable requirement for separation. Based on this thorough review, the court held that “living separate and apart” under the statute requires that spouses live in separate residences, concluding that this interpretation “aligns with the common understanding of the words, the statutory history of the provision, and legitimate public policy concerns.”
This case is tremendously important to any couple considering a divorce. Not only is it from the highest court in the state, but it addresses an issue integral to the division of marital property. To understand how this case could affect your family law proceeding, you are encouraged to contact an experienced family law lawyer. Roy M. Doppelt is a matrimonial attorney with more than 20 years of experience handling property division for parties in divorce. His office serves clients throughout Southern California, including San Diego, Encinitas, La Jolla, and Chula Vista. For a free consultation, contact Doppelt & Forney through our website, or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).
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