For many couples, living in either a common law or community property state is only relevant when a divorce is imminent or when one spouse dies. The designation of the state you live in will influence the distribution of property during the divorce. If you are new to Texas, and upon consulting with a family law attorney in Houston, you’ll learn that Texas is a community property state. It’s important to bring documents pertaining to your assets to your consultation with the family law attorney in order to learn how your property might be divided by the court.
Common Law Property Rules
Common law property rules are applicable in most states. Typically, this means that when one spouse acquires property during the marriage, that property is only owned by that spouse. If both spouses purchase property such as a house or vehicle, then each spouse owns 50% of that property. Common law property rules also apply to property that is received as a gift. When one of the spouses dies, his or her separately owned property is distributed in accordance with the will or the rules of intestate succession. Jointly owned property may become the sole property of the surviving spouse or half of the ownership may be distributed to someone else, depending on how ownership was shared by the spouses. For example, owning property via “joint tenancy with the right of survivorship” would pass full ownership of the property to the surviving spouse. If the property is owned via “tenancy in common,” then the property may be distributed to another beneficiary.
On the other hand, the rules of community property can be quite complex, and this is one reason why it’s advisable to consult a family law attorney. In community property states, all property acquired during the course of the marriage is considered to be marital or community property, which involves shared, 50/50 ownership (unless you can prove otherwise). Your family law attorney will need to know when various assets were acquired to determine whether they are solely or jointly owned with any third party. In contrast to property acquired during the marriage, assets purchased and wages earned prior to the marriage belong solely to one spouse who acquired the wages or earnings. Interestingly, earnings and assets acquired after the physical separation of the spouses are not solely owned but still may be considered community property. Community property law also applies to debts.