Marriage of Davis: A Shared Roof = Shared (Community) Property
by Vanessa Soto Nellis
During the recession, we occasionally heard of couples who were divorcing, but still cohabitating. For economic reasons, neither spouse moved out of the house – they continued to share or divide financial responsibilities as they did before agreeing to end their marriage. Maybe they each agreed to do their own laundry, cook their own meals or vacation without each other.
Sometimes the situation occurs for non-economic reasons, one spouse needing time to find another place to live, for example, or parents living together for their children’s sake.
This past summer, the Supreme Court of California issued an opinion In re Marriage of Davis that showed the decision for splitting couples to share an address may not always be wise. The opinion came down to whether or not the parties lived “separate and apart”, though they shared the same roof.
Destructive Times Between Deciding to Divorce and Actually Leaving
On the surface it seemed the Davises did live separately:
Sheryl Jones Davis and Keith Xavier Davis discontinued sexual relations in 1999; stopped sharing a bedroom in either 2001 or 2004 (the parties disagreed here), took separate vehicles to their children’s activities, and each did his or her own laundry.
On the other hand, for the sake of the children, they continued to celebrate birthdays and holidays together. Sometimes they vacationed separately, and other times they vacationed as a family. They maintained a joint bank account for household expenses, though each opened or reactivated a personal account as well.
When Sheryl petitioned for divorce in December 2008, she listed the date of separation as June 1, 2006 – that marked the day Sheryl told her husband she was done with the marriage, presented him with a ledger of household expenses, removed him from her American Express card and returned his credit account cards to him, and took a job the following month. She told the court she considered Keith to be merely a roommate from that point forward.
In response to the divorce petition, Keith Davis listed the date of separation as January 2, 2009. Sheryl did not move out until July 2011, and Keith filed an amended response changing the date of separation to July 1, 2011.
Both the lower and appellate courts found June 1, 2006 to be the date of separation. The Supreme Court disagreed.
Why Does Date of Separation Matter?
California is a community property state. Family Code § 771(a) regarding community property provides:
“The earnings and accumulations of a spouse and the minor children living with, or in the custody of, the spouse, while living separate and apart from the other spouse, are the separate property of the spouse.”
Date of separation, therefore, is important in determining whether or not a particular asset should be classified as community property, or separate property.
In the Davis’ case – Keith argued that spouses who share a home cannot be “living separate and apart”; while Sheryl contended that the totality of circumstances, i.e. arriving at the kids’ activities in separate cars, individual bank accounts, etc. should determine whether or not spouses are separated.
The Supreme Court considered previous cases and legislation dating back to the 19th century. In particular, the Court referred to Chapter 161 of the Statutes of California, “An Act to protect the rights of married women in certain cases.”
The 1870 Act did not contain a definition of the phrase ―”living separate and apart” used in section 2. (Stats. 1870, ch. 161, § 2, p. 226.) However, the Legislature‘s understanding that the phrase connoted a threshold requirement of separate residences may be discerned from an additional section of the statute.
The Court also turned to Black’s Law Dictionary, which previously defined separation as “residing in different places and having no intention of resuming marital relations,” and more recently, as “living away from each other, along with at least one spouse’s intent to dissolve the marriage.”
Focused solely on the interpretation of California’s community property statute, the Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.
Moving Out is Merely the First Step
Though living in separate residences is a critical part of establishing a date of separation, divorcing couples who need to cohabitate for a while can have an attorney draw up a written agreement to stipulate the official separation date.
On the other hand, couples who live apart immediately may still not be legally separated – moving out is merely one step in establishing a separation date. Should the parties continue to act married in other ways, establishing separate domiciles may not help in the community vs. separate property issue.
Vanessa Soto Nellis is a Certified Family Law Specialist (State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization) and a Shareholder at our firm. Contact her via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: 818-907-3274.