In today’s ever-changing society, the standards of relationships are also changing along with the laws that govern them. Many people are marrying for the second time seek to protect their already-existing assets, or to protect second spouses from debt incurred prior to the marriage. Some people are not getting married at all, preferring to keep their assets and obligations completely separate.
In January, 2000, the law in California started to require that all marriage licenses issued be accompanied by a fact sheet detailing each partner’s legal rights and obligations. As the legislature has noted, it is important to know your rights and obligations, whether married or not.
If you are not married and living with your partner, you will want to seek the advice of counsel before making any large joint purchases, such as a house, stock, furniture (high definition television or other costly items), or vehicles. When you do not have an agreement about how things will be divided, you may find that if you do part ways, you are spending more money on legal fees to divide your property than the property is worth.
If you are married, you want to be aware of community property laws because they will have a serious impact on you in the event of a divorce (dissolution of marriage). All property acquired during the marriage, with the exception of gifts or inheritances, is community property. Community property belongs to this separate entity, the community. Each spouse owns one-half of the property in the community. Community property includes everything earned and/or acquired during the marriage. This property includes, but is not limited to, earnings, retirement, whole life insurance cash values, tax refunds and equity in property (homes, vehicles, businesses). It also includes all obligations incurred during the marriage and, depending on the circumstances, it may include obligations that a spouse was not even aware existed.
In personal relationships, you tend to act without thinking because you place a lot of trust in the other person. If the relationship works out, you are rewarded for your trust. If it does not work out, you may find that the person you trusted is not the same person as the one on the other side of the dissolution litigation. What you thought were gifts suddenly become loans; what you thought were gifts to you as a couple become gifts to the other spouse; what you thought you shared is now alleged to belong solely to the other spouse.
The following is just a sampling of the many circumstances that can result in incredibly costly legal battles for the spouse who does not plan ahead:
- Parents of one spouse loan the couple money for a down payment on real property or loan the couple money to get through lean times;
- Parents of one spouse become co-owners of real property with the married couple or co-sign on the mortgage;
- Parents of one spouse buy expensive gifts for their son or daughter which are used by the couple;
- One spouse inherits money or stock or property that is not kept completely separate;
- One spouse handles all of the finances and the other spouse is completely unaware of the parties’ assets, debts or financial situation;
- One spouse works throughout the marriage and the other does not or works only minimally or earns only minimally;
- One spouse starts and maintains a small business, acquiring assets and liabilities.
- The parties buy a business from a family member, using community funds.
Knowledge is a powerful weapon and you should be aware that decisions you make before and during a relationship have an impact on the outcome should you decide to separate. Sound legal advice prior to entering into any relationship can prepare you for what may happen legally if that relationship ends.
The breakup of a relationship is emotionally draining; don’t let it become financially draining as well. Determine and protect your rights from the beginning by getting legal advice.
An ounce of prevention … Prevent yourself from becoming an unwitting party to a legal dispute. Seek legal advice before you make decisions that may adversely affect you in the future; or, at least know what you are getting into before you make the decision.