The California Supreme Court has made a landmark decision when it comes the definition of legal separation. The court explained that married couples who are going through a divorce will not be considered legally separated until one moves out of the house. This ruling put to rest the argument that other factors, such as income should come into play during divorce proceedings. The ruling was unanimous and ruled on the side of the “bright-line rule.” This rule states the minimum requirement for a separation to be considered legal once income and property are separated, which is simply the ‘establishment of individual residences.’
“A bright-line rule … promotes fairness by providing a measure of predictability to the parties and their attorney, as well as clear guidance to judges,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote. “It reduces the potential for manipulation of a more elastic standard by the higher earner in situations of significant income disparity.”
This case spurred form the divorce over one Castro Valley, California couple after they began a difficult legal battle during their divorce proceedings. The couple had been married for six years and parented two children together. After the two realized their relationship had become frayed, they began the tedious process of divorce. Sheryl Davis told the court her and her ex-husband, Xavier Davis had formally separated in 2006. However, the two continued living under the same roof, even though they were no longer romantically involved. During the court arguments, Xavier claimed that they did not formally separate until 2011, when Sheryl moved out of their home. The judge and the First District Court of Appeal sided with the wife, but once the case went on to the California Supreme Court, the ruling changed.
“Living in separate residences is an indispensable threshold requirement for a finding that spouses are living ‘separate and apart’ for purposes” of dividing property, the court said.
By deciding that the separation was not formal until Sheryl moved out means that Xavier was allowed to receive financial support from his ex-wife for the five years of marriage. Since she made more money than Xavier, she is required by state law to share her income and property with him until they are officially and formally separated.
Opponents of the bright-line rule complain that it is too simple and could have consequences. What about parents that want to continue living under the same roof for the sake of their children? Also, what about the financial burden that puts on one person to find a new place of residence?
“A typical spouse in California, for example, may face further financial difficulties by being required to move out of the marital residence as a prerequisite to establishing the date of separation rather than intentionally and meaningfully living as roommates at the same residence,” Sheryl’s lawyer told the court.
Despite some good points in her argument, the Justices did not change their opinions. In the concurring opinion, written by Justice Goodwin Liu, the court explains that there could be certain exemptions for those separating couples that have a good reason for why they should remain living under the same roof.
“The spouses must have a living arrangement that clearly and objectively signals a complete and final termination of the marital relationship,” he wrote. “Neither the Legislature nor this court has foreclosed the possibility that such a living situation may occur within a single dwelling.”
The fact that the definition of legal separation had to go to the state’s Supreme Court makes it clear that divorce can be very complex and a number of factors can come into play.
“Divorce proceedings can be a game of ‘he-said, she-said,” explains Marina Korol, a Los Angeles divorce attorney. “The bright-line rule may seem problematic, but it really is the most reasonable ways to define separation.
Korol’s point is in agreement with many other law experts. In an effort to clarify the aspects of a separation, the court used this rule. While some may find flaws with the system, there is no denying that divorce proceedings are very long and tedious. Any sort of legal definitions that can help move the proceedings along will be much welcome to many who find themselves going through a divorce.