Articles Posted in Community Property

Retirement benefits are often among the most significant assets in play when a couple decides to divorce. The question of how to divide those benefits can be a tricky one that implicates both state and federal laws. As California’s Second District Court of Appeals recently explained, state law in California generally dictates that retirement benefits are community property to be split evenly between spouses upon divorce. Federal law, however, mandates that Social Security retirement benefits remain the separate property of the spouse who contributes to the system during the course of the marriage.

retired-and-relaxing-1565780Husband and Wife separated in February 2010, following roughly 16 years of marriage. Husband, who worked as an attorney, contributed to Social Security through deductions from his paychecks during the course of the marriage. Wife, who worked for a state government entity as an employee of local district attorney’s office, participated in a defined-benefit retirement plan (“LACERA”), in which her employer contributed the full amount. The total retirement benefits available to Wife under her LACERA plan were based on the number of years she worked, her age, and her compensation. The plan also barred covered employees from contributing to or receiving Social Security for the time they served in the district attorney’s office, according to the Court.

Husband and Wife eventually entered into a marital settlement agreement, in which they resolved a number of issues related to the divorce. Among other things, the couple agreed that Husband’s Social Security benefits – valued at $228,000 – were separate property and that Wife’s LACERA benefits – valued at about $215,000 – were community property. Wife later asked a trial court to divide the couple’s property in a way that accounted for this disparity. She said the court should either require Husband to reimburse the community for the Social Security contributions and then divide them equally, or allocate her all of the LACERA benefits to equalize the retirement assets. The trial judge declined, finding that federal law prevented the court from considering Husband’s Social Security benefits in dividing the couple’s property.

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California divorce courts generally consider any property owned by one spouse before a marriage that spouse’s separate property to be kept by the spouse in the event of a divorce. Community property, on the other hand, includes anything that one or both spouses acquire through their efforts during the marriage, and it is typically divided equally between the spouses upon divorce. A recent case from the state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals shows how spouses can change the nature of separate property by specifically granting the other spouse an interest in it.

Husband and Wife were married for roughly 32 years before separating in 2007. Two years earlier, they signed an agreement in which the couple stated that all of the property they owned now and anything they acquired going forward would be considered community property. The spouses were eventually able to resolve many of the issues related to the divorce, but a nine-day trial was also held to consider lingering matters related to property distribution.

Wife argued that the trial court erred in awarding Husband reimbursement for his separate property under Family Code section 2640 because of the agreement to transmute all separate property to community property.

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.”
Milan Kundera

It is estimated that about 50% of American marriages end in divorce. It is also estimated that 62% of American households include at least one pet. So, it is reasonable to conclude that many divorces also involve pets.

Do you consider your dog to be a highly adored member of the family? If so, you may be surprised to learn that most family law courts consider your ball-catching canine to be classified as personal property.

Divorces in California almost always include the division of property (assets and debts) between spouses. And sometimes, quite often in fact, the property is a dog. Since most courts consider pets to be personal property just like your toaster or car, judges usually follow the same guidelines they use to determine who gets to keep personal property when couples are dividing things in a divorce. All of this applies equally to cats but for some reason, it is the care and control of dogs more so than cats, that are disputed issues. California’s First District Court of Appeals recently considered a dispute over the family dog.

dog-3-1403648Husband and Wife entered into a stipulated agreement resolving most of the issues related to their divorce. However, they were unable to agree on what to do with Sadie, the family dog. The stalemate led to a two-day trial, after which a judge concluded that the pet was community property. The California Family Code requires community property to be split evenly between spouses. Courts often award the property to one spouse and require that person to compensate the other spouse for his or her interest in the property. Here, the trial judge awarded the dog to Husband, noting that Wife had maintained sole use and possession of the animal since Husband filed for divorce two years earlier.

Wife appealed the decision, arguing that her daughter from another marriage was the dog’s true owner. She said her daughter adopted Sadie and registered the animal with local authorities under her own name. Unfortunately, however, Wife didn’t point to any evidence in the record from the trial court hearing showing that this was actually the case. Moreover, the First District said she didn’t even provide a transcript of the proceedings. A person appealing a divorce decision is not required to provide the transcript of the proceedings, but courts in California typically don’t go and get those records on their own and are likely to presume that the decision was supported by adequate evidence if there is no transcript to review.

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When a divorce involves a business of one or both spouses that is community property, issues of valuation arise, including how and when the business is valued. California’s Second District Court of Appeals recently considered the question of when a business is valued.

business-card-1525590Husband and Wife divorced in April 2012, after entering into a written settlement agreement related to the division of their community property and the payment of spousal support. They weren’t able to agree on one issue, however:  what to do with the small heating and air-conditioning company that the former spouses owned and operated together. Husband managed the company’s day to day work, while Wife was in charge of the business’s marketing and finances.

According to the Court, Husband “frustrated” Wife’s attempts to get information about the business by ousting her from her job, filing for bankruptcy, and refusing to produce financial records or to be deposed about the company’s financial health. He also transferred assets from the business to another business owned by a former employee and managed by Husband. Because of these actions, the trial court eventually decided to value the business based on what it was worth in May 2012 instead of setting the value at the time of a trial on the issue nearly two years later. The court accepted a valuation prepared by business broker and accountant Rodd Feingold, who set the value at about $470,000. Although a separate appraiser – Phillip Sabol – said the company was only worth $47,000, the Court rejected that valuation because it didn’t take into account the business’ goodwill and tangible assets. The court awarded the business to Husband and ordered him to pay Wife half of its value.

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California law imposes what’s called a “fiduciary duty” on spouses, which mandates the highest duty of good faith and fair dealing in their interactions with each other and to not take advantage of each other through fraud or other means.  As the state’s Third District Court of Appeals recently explained, however, the duty no longer exists once the spouses divorce.

old-books-1057004Husband and Wife were divorced in December 2010, after 14 years of marriage. They entered into a marital settlement agreement, under which the former spouses agreed that their individual stock ownership stakes in two different companies (OMI and Lifekind) would be considered each spouse’s separate property. They also pledged to “cooperate” in efforts to sell both companies.

Wife went back to court about a year later, seeking to force Husband to cooperate in selling both companies. She alleged that he had diluted her interest in OMI by obtaining a stock option agreement to give him a majority interest in the company, that he had obstructed the sale of Lifekind and OMI, and that he had breached his fiduciary duties related to the businesses. She asked a trial court to rescind Husband’s stock options deal and to issue sanctions against him for breaching the duty. The trial court ultimately declined, however, finding that Husband didn’t owe Wife an ongoing fiduciary duty after they divorced. The judge also found that the question of whether Husband owed Wife or other company shareholders a separate fiduciary duty based on his positions and ownership interests in the companies was beyond the family court’s jurisdiction.

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When a couple decides to divorce, one of the many issues that they often grapple with is how to divide community property. California law provides that any and all assets acquired due to the efforts of either spouse during the course of the marriage are to be split evenly between them upon divorce. Sometimes this means awarding an asset to one spouse and requiring him or her to make an equalizing payment to compensate the other spouse for their interest in the property. First, of course, you have to know how much the property is worth. Assets such as real property or financial accounts are generally easy to value, whereas a business can be very complex. A recent case out of the Sixth District Court of Appeals is a good example of how courts may determine the value of a family business, a figure that often includes “goodwill” built up by the business over time.

calculator-1406929-mHusband and Wife moved to California from India at some point after they married in 1976. Husband started his own trucking company in 1993, and Wife worked seasonally as a produce packager to supplement the family’s income. They bought a home in Watsonville, with Husband using income from the business to pay the mortgage and Wife using her wages to cover certain household expenses. They separated in February 2009 but continued to live in the home. Husband continued making the mortgage payments through May 2012, when Husband moved out of the home after Wife filed for divorce. They reached an agreement wherein Wife was responsible for the mortgage payments and Husband paid her $465 per month in temporary spousal support.

Following a divorce trial, a court awarded Husband the full trucking business and an equalizing payment to Wife. The trial court found the business had an overall value of $40,000, including $15,000 in actual value and $25,000 in goodwill. The goodwill aspect was based largely on Husband’s business relationship with his cousin, which the trial court said allowed him to gain a steady revenue stream without incurring marketing expenses.

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California’s community property system is meant to simplify property division issues in divorce cases by making it clear that all property gained through the efforts of either or both spouses during the marriage is to be split evenly between them. The reality, however, is that complicated issues still arise, including those related to property and income taxes. The state’s Fourth District Court of Appeals recently considered such a case.

accounting-calculator-tax-return-90376-mHusband and Wife married in 1997 and had two daughters before separating nine years later. While their divorce case was pending, the couple entered into a “post nuptial agreement,” wherein they resolved various issues, including their rights to the family home in Southern California. They agreed to list the home for sale and to treat the proceeds as community property, except that Husband was entitled to an additional $2.5 million for separate property funds he had contributed to the residence.

The couple eventually sold the home in 2009 for $10 million. They used nearly $1.4 million from the proceeds to pay state and federal taxes on their estimated capital gains from the transaction. They evenly divided the remaining $3.5 million after covering the additional $2.5 million owed to Husband, as well as interest, fees, commissions, and closing costs. Husband and Wife filed separate 2009 tax returns, with each reporting $5 million in income from the sale of the family home. Husband was required to pay an additional $65,000 in estimated capital gains taxes, while Wife estimated a $475,000 refund because she included the $2.5 million separate property payment as part of her nontaxable basis for the property.

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If you’ve read this blog before, you may already know that we prefer to help clients resolve divorce and other family law matters through alternatives to litigation that help them work collaboratively with a former spouse to reach a positive solution. One of the many drawbacks of the traditional litigation route is the dizzying array of procedural requirements that can end up costing a person his or her case. A recent decision out of California’s Second District Court of Appeals is a good example of one of the primary procedural hurdles:  time limits and filing deadlines.

time-is-going-1415573-mHusband filed for divorce from Wife in May 2009, roughly 10 years after the couple was married. Following a six-day trial, the court ordered Husband to prepare a draft judgment reflecting both the trial court’s decision and a partial settlement agreement that the couple had reached. Wife refused to sign the draft judgment, however, and the court entered it as a final judgment in March 2013. The judgment divided the couple’s assets and set monthly spousal support to be paid by Husband to Wife. The court modified the judgment – with a few handwritten changes to the 12th paragraph – one week later. The court granted Wife’s request to further modify the judgment in May 2013, making clear that Husband was required to make an equalizing payment to Wife covering her share of his Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

Wife filed a notice of appeal two days later. The Second District dismissed the appeal, however, ruling that it was untimely. The applicable rules, the Court noted, require a person seeking to appeal a family court ruling to file an appeal within 60 days of the ruling. Although the lower court had just modified the ruling two days earlier, the Second District said the 60 days started to run when the trial court issued its original ruling in March 2013. That’s because the Court said the modifications made after that time were not “substantial.”

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If you’ve gone to one of those retirement planning sessions lately, you may already know that saving for life after work is not only incredibly important but also can be very complicated. These matters often become even more difficult in divorce cases, where spouses or a court have to decide how to divide savings that the parties can’t actually access yet. California’s Second District Court of Appeals recently considered such a case.

tightened-100-dollar-roll-1377964-mHusband and Wife separated in April 1998 after nearly 11 years of marriage. Husband had been working for the Los Angeles Fire Department for 18 years at the time and was eligible to retire in 2000. The couple entered into a marital settlement agreement in December 2000. The agreement divided the couple’s assets between the spouses and provided that all “income, earnings, employment benefits, or other property” acquired by one spouse after the separation date would be considered the spouse’s separate property. It also stated that Wife was entitled to half of Husband’s pension/retirement plan, due after he reached 30 years of service, if he decided to keep working past his earliest retirement date.

In 2010, Husband began participating in a new LAFD retirement program, the DROP program, which provides firefighters a lump sum payment upon their retirement, along with any monthly retirement allowance to which they are entitled under another plan. As a condition to the program, Husband agreed that his years of service and accrual amounts would freeze upon the date of his entry in the program. Money would be credited to his DROP account during the five-year period, and he would be able to access that money directly upon retirement.

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The State of California operates under a community property regime in which assets and debts derived from the efforts or actions of either spouse during the course of a marriage are considered joint property to be divided equally between the spouses in the event of divorce. In In re Marriage of Rynda, the California Court of Appeals for the First District explains what happens to community property when one of the divorcing spouses also files for bankruptcy.

dollar-2-1003609-m.jpgCarolina and David were married in January 1996. The couple worked together as owners of a small insurance company until Carolina filed for divorce more than eight years later. A superior court dissolved the marriage in May 2005 and ordered that all community property – including the business – be divided equally among the former spouses. When Carolina filed for bankruptcy in 2009, however, the court ordered that all valuations of the couple’s assets for the purpose of dividing it between them be halted until the bankruptcy proceedings were completed. A bankruptcy court-appointed trustee later sold much of the property. That included Carolina’s stock in the company, which the trustee sold to David.

Back in the superior court, Carolina filed a motion claiming that she was entitled to a 50 percent ownership interest in the business and to be compensated for the community debts that were extinguished during the bankruptcy process. She also argued that there remained community property from the marriage for the superior court to divide. The court disagreed. “[T]he bankruptcy court has superior jurisdiction to the superior court,” the judge said. “And if the bankruptcy court divided your businesses or sold them, then they’re done with them. I can’t do anything about that.”

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