What is the scope of the "community property" concept? Does it have any practical meaning in the scope of day-to-day finances for a married couple or does it apply to their finances only if divorcing?

Investopedia breaks down "community property" thus:

In community property jurisdictions, each spouse in a marriage is considered to own a share of the marital assets, including any financial or real assets acquired during the marriage.

There are a few notable exceptions (including gifts) and not all participating states treat this the same, but broadly speaking, this can be thought of as "joint ownership" of all financial assets.

There are a great many references to community property and the often resulting 50/50 split of assets during a divorce, so its scope undoubtedly pertains in that realm.

But does it equally apply and have immediate ramifications during an active and ongoing marriage?

What follows is a partially hypothetical example, to hopefully clarify the question:

My wife and I each had no significant assets when we married but have acquired quite a bit in the decades that have followed. Specifically, though, I have generated none as a stay-at-home spouse, while my wife has accumulated a net worth of $4M as a combination of stocks, real estate, and a 40% majority stake in a company. All accounts are exclusively in her name and none are explicitly noted as being "joint". We have lived in a community property state our entire marriage.

If we were to divorce, then -- barring any other agreement -- I would definitely be entitled to $2M of that, presumably even to the level of acquiring a 20% stake in that firm.

What's not clear is what effect living in a community property state has on our shared finances right now. Do I have, in reality, full joint ownership of the entire $4M and thus, full access to all of the associated accounts, even though none are technically in my name? Or are they accessible only by my wife and my so-called "joint ownership" is purely virtual until such time that the assets need to be divided?

  • 3
    This likely belongs on: law.stackexchange.com It's an interesting question, not sure it matters practically. I believe the only way you get meaningful access to those assets is if your spouse grants you access to those assets or you take legal action, which would typically be divorce (and contesting ownership of assets with a spouse you're not divorcing would likely end in divorce anyway).
    – Hart CO
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 15:35
  • @HartCO - why? This seems like the type of question that would be answered by a CPA or other financial professional, not a lawer. Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 15:41
  • I can't think of any non-divorce or lawsuit reason where "community property" definition would come into play. At best any loan you want to take out might require both spouses to sign, but that's still probably a legal question.
    – pboss3010
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 18:32
  • @pboss3010 - in the above scenario, say I wanted to start actively investing our money even though, as stated, the accounts are just in her name. I could simply just use her username and password or have her add me to the account, but if there is true joint ownership, then I should be able to gain access to the account without her involvement at all. Substitute a checking account for the investment account and I can confidently say that this scenario absolutely does come up in the real world. Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 19:36
  • @HartCO "would likely end in divorce anyway" -- unless both spouses had a motivation to remain married despite their dispute (e.g., public relations, tax advantages, or personal/religious beliefs against divorce). Out of hundreds of millions of couples, the scenario would surely be practical for some.
    – nanoman
    Commented Jan 11, 2019 at 21:55

3 Answers 3


From an article that discusses this issue:

The law doesn't get involved unless and until you divorce. ... As far as the financial institution is concerned, your husband has no right to the money because it never entered into a contract with him. ... If you or your husband file for divorce, your account becomes subject to your state's family law code, not just your contract with the bank.


Based on your scenario in the comments, you will likely not be able to access your wife's assets asserting a community property right. The bank will insist that your spouse agree to any transfer of assets or change in ownership and any loan will likely require her to co-sign. You might as well just go and set up the joint accounts. And if she isn't agreeable to this and you're trying to go around her, well, you two have bigger issues.


Turn the situation around: if all these accounts were in your name, you'd have no expectation that your wife could walk into the bank -- or the company that you own 40% of -- show her marriage certificate and demand some money.

It just doesn't work that way.

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