After several months trying to make your marriage work, you and your partner have decided to divorce. The decision was painful, and the divorce process looks, if not painful, then certainly not pleasant.

One of the most complicated aspects of a divorce is property division. You may have heard the term “community property state” in reference to California’s divorce laws. But what does this term mean, and how will it affect your assets?

Community property vs. equitable distribution

There are two ways to handle property division. Every state in the U.S. falls under the category of community property or equitable distribution:

  • Community property means that the property and assets acquired after marriage, with some exceptions, must be divided fifty-fifty between spouses.
  • Equitable distribution is when spouses must divide their assets in an equitable manner. This means a fair, but not necessarily fifty-fifty, split.

Because California is a community property state, divorce courts will divide marital property equally between spouses. This includes cars, real estate and bank accounts—even if they are under only one spouse’s name. Any inherited assets or assets purchased before the marriage are separate property, and do not need to be split.

So, what will happen to my assets?

It may not be possible to predict the outcome of your property division agreement with any certainty. Property distribution arrangements vary couple to couple. For example, some couples sell their house and split the proceeds; others choose to have one spouse remain while the other buys out their share.

You may still have some leeway when it comes to dividing your marital property. If you can reach a private arrangement with your spouse, you may not have to proceed to court. But if you do take your divorce to trial, a judge will determine how to split your assets evenly.