What Is Common Law Property?

Common law property is a system that most states use to determine ownership of property acquired during marriage. In contrast to the community property system, the common law property system states that property that one member of a married couple acquires belongs solely to that person unless the property is specifically put in the names of both spouses. This theme becomes important in wealth management and estate management following a divorce or death of a spouse.

Key Takeaways

  • Common law property is a system that most states use to determine the ownership of property, particularly in cases of divorce.
  • Under a common law property system, assets acquired by one member of a married couple are deemed to belong to that person, unless they were put in the names of both.
  • Common law property contrasts with a community property system, which treats assets acquired during a marriage as belonging to both partners.

Understanding Common Law Property

As an example of how a common law property system works, if one partner purchases a boat, car, or other vehicle and puts only their name on the title, that vehicle belongs exclusively to that person. If this partner lived in a state that recognized community property, however, the vehicle would automatically become the property of both partners in the marriage. Only a handful of states recognize community property. They include:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Whether a state has a common law or community property system, the division of assets in a divorce may also be determined by a prenuptial agreement or a postnuptial agreement if the divorcing couple has one.

The distinction between common law and community property law is important not only in cases of divorce but also in ongoing wealth management. For high-net-worth individuals, in particular, a wealth manager might go to great lengths to determine the rightful ownership of certain assets, in either common or community property situations. Wealth managers may also be involved in the creation of wills and trusts, and in overseeing the passing of wealth from one generation to the next, all of which may be affected by whether the assets in question are governed by common or community property law.

Common law property rules can apply not only to tangible assets, such as cars, real estate, and fine art, but also to intangible assets, such as patents and trademarks.

In addition to the example of vehicles, above, other physical assets that could be divided based on common law property rules include real estate (such as first and second homes, rental properties, land, and construction not used for day-to-day living, like docks and boat houses). Also on the list: valuables such as art, antiques, and collectibles.

Physical assets like those are only one type of wealth, of course. There are also intangible assets, which include such things as brand names, patents, trademarks, leases, computer programs, customer lists, franchise agreements, and so forth. Intangible assets are also subject to common law or community property rules, although they tend to be associated more with companies and less with individuals.