Estimates of divorce rates in America vary, but the reality is a great many marriages reach this unfortunate conclusion, and the aftermath is frequently messy, both emotionally and financially.
When a couple joins as one, their assets typically combine to form a marital estate, and anything they acquire thereafter becomes joint property. Upon divorce, those assets — including real estate, dependent children, income, cars, furniture, stocks, and retirement accounts — get divided between the former spouses.
Depending on the state you reside in, there are two ways your assets could be divided:
1. Community property: Marital assets — and debts incurred by either spouse during the marriage — are divided 50/50. However, separate property (anything held in only one spouse’s name, including property owned before marriage, given as a gift, or inherited) is not taken into account. The states that observe this law are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. Residents of Alaska can opt-in to a community property agreement.
2. Equitable distribution: Marital assets (not including separate property) are divided by a judge with the goal to put each individual on equal financial footing, taking into account each person’s earning potential or income, financial needs, and personal assets.
To protect personal assets in either case, couples can set up a prenuptial agreement, which establishes terms for a division of assets in the event of a divorce.
Check the map above to find out if the state you live in observes equitable distribution or community property law.