When a couple gets divorced, all community property must be divided equally between them. All property acquired during the marriage is presumed to be community property subject to division upon divorce. Community property includes a spouse’s earnings received during the marriage.
Just as all property acquired during the marriage is equally divided in a divorce, responsibility for all debts a couple acquires during the marriage are equally shared between them. Under California Family Code § 910, the community estate is liable for the debts of either spouse. However, the earnings of one spouse are not liable for the premarital debts of the other spouse. For example, a spouse’s wages may not be garnished to satisfy the outstanding obligations on student loans the other spouse obtained before getting married.
Community Estate Liability for Marital Debts
So, can the property of the community estate be reached to satisfy debts arising from a spouse’s tortious conduct? The community estate is only liable for marital debts to the extent that some other Family Code provisions limits such liability.
Under California Family Code § 1000, “a married person is not liable for any injury or damage caused by the other spouse except in cases where the married person would be liable therefor if the marriage did not exist.” As a result, a spouse is not personally liable for the torts committed by their spouse.
However, the community estate can be held liable for those torts committed by a spouse in the course of “performing an activity for the benefit of the community.” For example, a car acquired during the marriage can be reached to satisfy a damages awarded arising from a car accident caused by a spouse on the way to buy groceries for the family.
Liability of Property for Interspousal Torts
When a spouse inflicts tortious injury upon the other spouse—known as an “interspousal tort”—a court will consider the tortfeasor-spouse’s liability when dividing assets upon divorce. However, under California Family Code § 782, community property may not be reached to satisfy liability stemming from an interspousal tort unless the tortfeasors-spouse’s separate property has run out of separate property from which damages can be awarded.
The parties to a divorce can reach a private divorce settlement where the injured spouse explicitly authorizes the use of community property to satisfy the other spouse’s interspousal tort liability. In such cases, the court can award a greater share of the community estate to the injured spouse.
For example, if a spouse sued the other spouse for injuries they suffered from acts of domestic violence the other spouse committed against them, the injured spouse can agree to receive a larger share of community property as compensation for the damages they sustained.
Call the Law & Mediation Firm of Klueck & Hoppes, APC for More Legal Advice
If you have questions regarding property division issues related to your divorce, you should ask an experienced attorney from the Law & Mediation Firm of Klueck & Hoppes, APC. Our legal team is dedicated to providing effective legal counsel and advocacy for divorce matters, such as the division of community assets and liabilities.
To schedule a case evaluation, call our office at (619) 577-4900 or contact us online today.