California Family Law Attorney
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September 24, 2010
  I Have Been Paying the MORTGAGE Since SEPARATION - Am I Entitled to WATTS CREDITS?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. I have been occupying our family home alone since my wife left over a year ago. I pay all the interest only mortgage, property taxes, and insurance with no help from her. Does she owe me half of any of this?

Art, Anza Borrego, CA

You may be owed you something, but not necessarily one-half of what you have paid out, and different categories of expenses may be treated differently.

This situation involves at least three potential legal concepts:

  • Epstein Credits (Payment of CP Debts Reimbursed)
  • Watts Credits (Reimbursement for Exclusive Use of CP)
  • Jeffries Credits (Combination of Epstein and Watts Reimbursements)

What Are Epstein Credits

"Epstein credits" is a doctrine that holds that as a general rule courts must reimburse one spouse who uses earnings or other separate funds after separation to pay pre-existing community estate obligations. Courts may not order this reimbursement if under the circumstances it would be unreasonable for the paying spouse to have expected reimbursement. Where payments are made on account of a debt for an asset that the paying spouse was or is using and the amount was not substantially in excess of the value of the use, the Court may decline to order reimbursement. This Blog addresses your question in terms of Watts and Jeffries credits that may be owing you upon divorce or legal separation - the prior blog details Epstein credits.

Watts and Jeffries Credits

We speak in terms of "Watts credits" when one party has the exclusive beneficial use of community property. When money is owed on that asset, "Jeffries" reimbursements or set-offs for the payment of that debt also come into play. On the one hand you are enjoying the use of a valuable jointly owned asset and should reimburse the community for that use; on the other you are paying something to a creditor for that use, and that amount should be deducted from what you owe the community. Watts is a calculation for the value of what should be charged for an exclusive enjoyment of community property by one spouse; Jeffries combines the value of that use with reimbursements under an Epstein analysis. Marriage of Watts (1985) 171 Cal.App.3d 366, 373-374; Marriage of Jeffries (1991) 228 Cal.App. 3d 548, 552-553.

Family lawyers most often see Watts and Jeffries issues arise in disputes over residences occupied by one spouse alone. In practice none of these concepts are typically applied to automobiles, although in theory they should be, or other consumer goods.

While Epstein credits are generally viewed by trial judges to be mandatory reimbursements, allowing Watts and Jeffries credits is discretionary. Having a working knowledge of your local judicial bench officer's attitude on these subjects is an important bit of information for you to obtain.

Watts credits and Jeffries credits are obviously implicated in your question since you occupy the house for which you seek mortgage and other payment credits and reimbursements.

This is how Watts Credit issues typically arise - you and your wife jointly own a home, and both of you are obligated on the mortgage. Assume the monthly mortgage payment is $3,200 (interest only in your case), the taxes average $400/month, and insurance costs $1,200/year. Mortgage payments are made on the 15th of the month, and she moves out on January 14, 2009. You were unable to make the payment on December 15, 2008, so there are two payments due on January 15. On January 15 you make these two payments, and then continue to make all these payments until the present time or the date of settlement or trial. You occupy the residence the entire time. You also incur charges for water for the landscaping, etc., along with the cable bill, electricity, phone and trash. You have a gardener and a pool man that together amount to $250/month.

Hence, you are spending $3,700 on the mortgage, taxes, and insurance plus the $250 for upkeep, along with whatever you pay for utilities each month. Over time this amount can grow to a considerable number.

Assume you had to borrow the money to pay December late from your mother. This is your separate property debt to Mom if borrowed after separation. But because your wife lived at the house up until the day she moved which include all of January, you are entitled to the equivalent of an Epstein reimbursement. Watts and Jeffries don't yet apply. The obligation existed before separation, was paid after separation, and the source of payment was your separate property. The community estate owed the payment, which means you owed one-half too (she also owes one-half the utilities charged during the same period as well that were paid with your separate property).

Watts and Jeffries credits answer questions how to deal with expenses you paid after she left where you had use of the home during some some of or the entire period. Watts credits deal with the value of that use, and Jeffries deal with the value of the use less a reimbursement claim for the cost to you of that use. Both parties can have these claims for the same property at different times, or one party may assert these reimbursements as against one property while the other may assert them as to another.

What if instead of you living in the home after separation, it was rented to others but the rent didn't cover all the house related debt service? The rents are deducted from the total and you each owe one-half of the shortfall. If you advanced the difference, you are entitled to one-half back from your wife.

Watts' Analysis

So, where one party enjoys exclusive use of a CP asset how is the reimbursement calculated?

As a pure Watts credit analysis, assume a community property house is free and clear other than upkeep and utilities and that you lived there for a time - effectively rent free since there is no mortgage. You can imagine how it might be unfair for you to receive this benefit without paying for it. The amount of reimbursement you owe the community depends upon the property's fair rental value. Fair rental value (FRV) is what you would expect to pay monthly to rent the same or a similar property on the open market in an arm's length transactions. It is usually proven by expert broker or appraiser testimony, but as an owner of property you are free to testify to what you think its fair rental value is (as is the other spouse). Whether your opinion is believed or given weight by the court depends upon the assumptions you make in arriving at your opinion of FRV (as well as perceived credibility).

If the FRV is $3,000/month, and you reside in the house for 15 months from date of separation to time of trial, the total value of your use is $45,000. From this you would deduct fixed expenses like taxes ($400/month) and insurance ($100/month). You would therefore owe the community $2,500 x 15 = $37,500, but since you own half the community the net reimbursement to the other party is one-half that amount. You may also be able to deduct the gardener and pool man particularly where those payments help to maintain the asset itself. You might even deduct repairs depending upon the circumstances (installing a solid gold toilet wouldn't qualify).

All of these reimbursements are "Watts charges" to you. They are "Watts credits" to the party to be reimbursed.

Jeffries' Analysis

The more common situation is that some mortgage debt for the house you occupy is being paid monthly. Assume it to be $2,000 combined (including mortgage, taxes, and insurance). If the FRV is $3,000/month but you pay $2,000 monthly then the net benefit to you is $1,000 each month or $15,000 total. You would owe a Watts reimbursement of one-half that sum, or $7,500, on the marital balance sheet or as a direct payment to your spouse.

This is a Jeffries situation. Note that it assumes that these costs to you were paid by your separate property. If instead you used community monies remaining in a bank account after the DOS to pay this debt (or CP funds from some other source) then you do not subtract that from the fair rental value because the community estate has already been charged.

BTW, an interesting twist on this question these days involves what happens when there is a mortgage but the party in possession fails or refuses to pay it. They are living there at no effective charge while the other spouse may be actually paying rent elsewhere. In that case you should not receive a credit for one-half the debt you did not actually pay, but it is difficult to predict how a judge will handle this. After all, you may continue to owe the money and have to repay it later. Now what happens if you then decide to file a bankruptcy, so then never have to pay it because the debt is discharged? That bankruptcy if properly drafted should also destroy any reimbursement claims of your spouse altogether. Great unfairness can occur in these situations. In my experience many of the legal rules for these reimbursement claims developed in a completely different economy and fairness and common sense is struggling to keep up with the new world order.

These days with the mortgage and real estate bust another situation frequently arises: The amount a spouse pays to maintain the mortgage and related asset expenses may exceed the FRV of the property. Should the other spouse be charged with half of this net loss, and so forced to underwrite some of it?

Assume in the illustration above that the costs remain the same, but the mortgage is $4,000/month. Since FRV is $3,000, you are overpaying by $1,000. Are you entitled to a credit back for one-half of the net loss? In my experience most courts won't give it to you but make the argument anyway. Courts seem to feel that if you choose to live in a place that you want the other side to help underwrite, when cheaper alternate arrangements are available, then your choice to stay there should not bind the other person. The court cannot tell you what choices to make, but it can refuse to let you benefit unfairly by them.

This makes sense on at least one level - imagine that you have a large, beautiful, expensive home that is way under water, and that your estranged wife insists on continuing to live in it despite the fact that the costs to keep it are far in excess of what comparable lodgings would cost. Naturally she wants you to absorb as much of this to whatever extent possible which lowers her incentive to move. If she was allowed to stay and charge you for one-half the difference between a $10,000 mortgage and its $5,000 rental value, she might continue to reside in this losing, nonproductive asset if she effectively only paid $7,500/month after credit for your $2,500.


While Epstein reimbursements appear to be mandatory in dividing the community assets and liabilities, Watts and Jeffries credits are viewed as discretionary reimbursements. Many judges don't favor these reimbursements and so exercise their discretion to deny them. I tell my clients not to count on them in negotiating settlements, and many lawyers refuse to take the argument seriously when negotiating settlement. Another reason why lawyers tend to treat them as inconsequential, besides bluffing, is that they can be expensive to prove and so you are being tested as to whether you have the stamina or the money to assert these claims at trial. After all, it is best to have forensic experts testify to them, and these individuals may include an accountant and a broker/appraiser.

One solution is to request the family court to bifurcate the issue so that a short, separate trial occurs on the Watts/Jeffries issues alone. Once the amount of Watts or Jeffries credits is fixed by judicial decision you can now place it on the marital balance sheet in your settlement discussions on the remaining issues.

The success of a Watts or Jeffries claim are fact specific. In doing justice and equally dividing the community estate, there is broad spectrum of fairness running from "its not big deal" to being "really unfair." You will not get much traction where the consequence of not reimbursing Watts credits or imposing Watts charges is a small number. But where one party enjoys the asset alone without paying creditors, a very strong argument exists in favor of finding reimbursements.

Finally, be sure to include reference to Esptein reimbursements and Watts and Jeffries in your Declarations of Disclosure to make it clear that you are asserting such a claim. If you are the spouse in possession omit any reference to it. It is not your job to assert that argument against yourself.

Author: Thurman W. Arnold

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May 17, 2010
  My husband was HOSPITALIZED after we SEPARATED; am I liable for the bill?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. After my husband and I separated, he was hospitalized and incurred $28,000 in medical bills. The creditor is threatening to sue me. Am I liable?

In a recent appellate decision out of San Diego County (CMRE Financial Services, Inc. v. Parton), the wife called police after an incident of domestic violence and shortly thereafter filed for DV restraining orders. A week later the parties separated, and the husband was admitted to Tri-City Medical Center for treatment for a severe emotional illness. He incurred substantial medical bills.

The wife filed a dissolution action three months after that. In her Schedule of Assets and Debts she listed the debt as owed by her husband. A judgment for dissolution came to be entered several months later, and it did not assign the hospital obligation to the wife. It appears to have been a default judgment against the husband.

CMRE, the assignee of Tri-City Hospital, sued both the husband and wife to collect the money for husband's treatment; by then husband had disappeared and was never served with the lawsuit. Wife responded by denying liability, and with a cross-complaint that alleged that by sending her collection notices CMRE had violated the provisions of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (Title 15, United States Code section 1692 et seq.), and that she should obtain damages against them.

CMRE filed a motion to toss out the cross-complaint, relying on the language of Family Code section 914(a)(2), which states that spouses are liable for debts incurred by the other when separated if these are for "necessaries of life."

The trial court agreed with CMRE, and the matter proceeded to a judgment against the wife for the full amount plus interest. Wife appealed.

Once a Dissolution Judgment is Entered, Liability for Spousal Debts Ends

The appellate court ruled in favor of wife, and reversed the trial court. Wife would have been liable for these medical costs IF a dissolution including property division had not been granted, or if the dissolution judgment had assigned the debt to her, or if she had agreed to support her estranged husband while they were separated. For instance, if the parties had reconciled and if CMRE had sued the wife and obtained a money judgment against her, she would have been on the hook. But once a dissolution judgment was entered that did not assign the debt to the wife she was protected. Family Code section 916.

The appellate court also noted that an independent basis for holding wife free of the debt included Family Code section 4302 which states that a person is not liable for the support of their spouse when the person is living separate from the spouse by agreement, unless the agreement calls for support. The court reasoned that while the starting point is that spouses are liable for the other's necessaries while living separately that rule will not apply where they are separated by agreement (apparently the agreement can be verbal or implied from conduct), unless the agreement includes a promise to support the other.

This appellate decision seems confusing because the language of the statutes themselves conflict. The court continued by noting that the legislature has declared that one spouse's liability for the other spouse's post-separation necessaries is entirely derivative of the fact of marriage and not the same as a debt personally incurred by the supporting spouse. This means that "the liability imposed by section 914 can be avoided by the simple expedient of entering into a separation agreement which does not provide for support."

The only exception might be where a creditor alleges a marital settlement agreement violates the Uniform Fraudulent Transfer Act. CMRE did not allege any fraud between these spouses.

This is landmark case because up to this point most lawyers and judges believed that spouses were liable for the necessaries of life of the other, even after separating, and that this was a special exception to the general rule that once spouses separate liability for debt ends.

Now we know that you have at least two ways to avoid this debt: (1) Obtain a Judgment for Dissolution before the creditor obtains a civil judgment against you, but be sure that the debt is assigned to the other spouse; and (2) be sure that you don't have an agreement to support the other spouse in place, at least at the time the debt is incurred. The judgment can be based upon a marital termination agreement.

If you pretend to separate, or separate just to avoid the debt, and if the creditor claims you did this fraudulently to avoid liability, the outcome might be different.

One additional point of information: Under the circumstances of this case, CMRE was found to have in fact violated the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act just by sending threatening letters, and of course by filing suit. Knowledge of this case can be used to back off creditors who are harassing you.

Thurman W. Arnold III, CA Family Attorney

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May 11, 2010
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. My wife and I are getting our divorce with the assistance of a paralegal. That person has prepared a Marital Settlement Agreement. The paralegal says she cannot give us legal advice. There is a phrase in the agreement that says something about each of us waiving Epstein reimbursements. I have no idea what this means.

"Epstein reimbursements" deal with the question: "How do we divide debts that we incurred during the marriage, where one of us made payments after we separated and up to the time of divorce?" The best family lawyers know the answer - but most don't.

A common situation is that parties have credit card debt that needs to be divided in the divorce. Say there was a balance of $10,000 owing to American Express on December 31st, the day before your wife drank too much at the office New Year's celebration and had an unfortunate tryst with her boss - this isn't the first time this has happened, and your New Year's resolution is to move out (sorry, I am just trying to be colorful), and so you do move out the next day. Her reaction is to file for divorce, because her boss looks way more interesting to her than you do these days.

Under this example January 1 is your date of separation. From the date of separation on, the earnings of either spouse are no longer community property, or joint earnings, but instead these earnings belong to each of you separately. Family Code section 771.

Often where a credit card is in the name of one person alone, the other spouse or domestic partner doesn't contribute to the payments after separation - sometimes because they won't and sometimes because they can't. But as between the two of you, the $10,000 is jointly owed to American Express, even if the other spouse did not sign the credit card application or is not named on the card, or on the statement. This is also true whether or not both parties directly benefited from the use of the credit card - for instance, maybe the $10,000 was charged by your wife to buy shoes over the course of the past year to help make herself feel better about the fact that you never have intimate conversations with her any more (or for any other reason), or perhaps you charged the card to add more chrome to your Harley Davidson Fat-Boy because your hairline is receding.

If the card is not paid, American Express can pursue collection either against the spouse who is the account holder, or against the community property of both spouses. Family Code section 910. If the credit card is in your name alone, it will be your credit that might be ruined if the monthly installments are missed.

Now again, as between you and your wife, the general rule is that each of you owe one-half of the credit card debt which means that all other things being equal, in a property settlement or if a Judge is forced to divide your property and estate, if one party is assigned 100% of the debt the other owes a reimbursement of $5,000. Lawyers and Judges speak of assigning the debt to one party or the other on the "marital balance sheet" which implies a corresponding credit or right of set-off against the division of some other item of property.

Circumstances When Not Entitled to Epsteins

There are, of course, exceptions. These exceptions frequently include (a) situations where a debt was incurred in breach of a fiduciary obligation owing the community estate or to the other spouse and (b) where one party retains the benefit of the property that the credit card was used to acquire (believe it or not, I am frequently asked about breast augmentations or other cosmetic surgeries - except in extreme cases, courts do not charge one party for these). For example, if when you learned of your wife's affair your reaction included flying to Las Vegas and having a wild weekend and you recklessly charged the $10,000 at the casino, this might be considered a breach of fiduciary duty and result in the entire $10,000 being your responsibility even though the two of you had yet to physically separate. Or, if instead you spent the $10,000 buying more chrome for your Harley and you expect to keep it in the divorce, then even though the $10,000 was otherwise a community obligation equitable considerations may result in the debt being assigned to you. If in the divorce the two of you decide to sell the Harley but the chrome you spent $10,000 buying adds only $2,000 in value to the sale's price, in that case the $10,000 remains a joint obligation because you neither breached a fiduciary duty nor retained a sufficient benefit that the law would charge you for it and the asset is being divided. Another common situation is where one spouse retains the furniture or refrigerator charged at Lowe's - in that case more of the debt may be assigned to that party.

Assuming you continue to make monthly payments of principal and interest on the credit card up to the point of dividing the debt in a marital settlement agreement (MSA), or if a judge makes the call for you both after a trial, as a general proposition your wife owes you one-half of all those payments. These are called Epstein credits or Epstein reimbursements in California, and many other community property states have similar rules. These are also called equitable reimbursements, meaning that the right to be reimbursed is not absolute and certain but that the court has wide discretion to grant the reimbursement or not depending upon fairness. Typically California family law courts do grant the reimbursement so long as the parties benefited equally (or the money was equally wasted).

The principle in California was first set forth in the case of Marriage of Epstein (1979) 24 Cal.3d 76. It is to be distinguished from the rule that the debt itself, if community, must be divided equally between parties in divorce. Family Code § 2550. It covers reimbursements rights that accrue between physical separation and the date of ultimate division of the liability.

So, the agreement the paralegal has prepared includes an agreement each of you is giving up any right to be reimbursed for debt related payments made after separation. You are not being asked to waive your credit for $5,000 if the $10,000 debt is assigned to you (unless there is a separate provision assigning the credit card balance to you completely). You are being asked to waive all the debt maintenance up to this point. It is not an unusual clause in an MSA, but it may or may not be in your best interests to agree to it.

Epstein credits take a variety of forms, and are not limited to credit card debt. The Epstein case itself involved a husband who voluntarily made the mortgage, insurance, and tax payments on the family residence during the separation period. Wife and their son occupied the home. Up to that point the law was that if one party used separate property (earnings after separation) to pay community debt (the mortgage, etc., on the residence), there was a presumption that this was intended to be a gift to the community unless an agreement could be proved that it was not to be a gift.

Each party may have separate Epstein claims as to different items of debt.

Upon separating, it is a smart idea to get and keep copies of credit card statements and statements for all liability accounts as of the date of separation. From an accounting point of view, the date of separation is a critical snapshot of a point in time. It is essential that the parties maintain these records as proof of what the numbers were, and of what payments were made afterwards.

Whether or not you should waive the Epstein reimbursements that might be owing you is part of the give and take of negotiating a divorce settlement. These are usually simple accounting issues, but not always.

If your Wife gets an attorney that attorney might try to convince you to waive the Espteins, or hope that you don't understand the concept or have it independently explained to you. In my experience where we are speaking in terms of vanilla debt (meaning there is no questionable conduct and the charges were incurred in the normal course), your wife's lawyer would also agree that you are entitled to these reimbursements without a fight if you know enough to insist.

There is an important flip side and hybrid of the Epstein reimbursement concept - that of Watts charges and credits. The deal generally with who pays for the beneficial use of community property (i.e., the home) during the separation period, once the divorce is finalized.

To learn more about Epstein reimbursements in California divorces, visit us here!

I address Watts issues separately.

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Author: Thurman W. Arnold

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April 07, 2010
  When I get MARRIED, how do I avoid my husband's DEBT?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. If I marry is it possible to avoid any of my fiancé's debt liability?

Yes. First, your separate property doesn't become liable for a spouse's premarital debt simply by marrying. But community property as it comes into being does.

Secondly, to the extent you or your spouse will incur debt during marriage, prior to marriage both can agree to eliminate or restrict the creation of community property as between you. This is accomplished through a prenuptial or premarital agreement. Essentially you agree to restrict or eliminate the creation of community property in the first instance, since that will remain liable for debts incurred prior to (with some exceptions) and during the marriage, and so you can ensure that your separate property remains protected.

None of this applies to debts you jointly incur - the joint credit card, the jointly purchased car, or the jointly refinanced home. This is why creditors try to insist that both spouses sign loans.

But you can modify your behavior in order to protect yourself by not signing. It is possible to enter a post-nuptial agreement which achieves substantially the same thing, although it won't necessarily change the character of debt incurred prior to its signing but it may nonetheless eliminate future community debt by eliminating community property. Remember, as between the two of you, you cannot affect third party's rights who are not parties to your post marital agreement, and to do so may be considered a fraud upon creditors which means the agreement may be set aside and voided.

Thurman W. Arnold III
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April 07, 2010
  Am I LIABLE for my husband's NURSING HOME DEBT?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. Am I liable for my husband's nursing home bills?

Community and both spouse's separate property is liable for the other spouse's "necessaries of life" while the spouses are living together, and even when they are living separately - unless they are living separately by agreement within the meaning of Family Code section 4302. If this occurs at a time when there is no community property but the other spouse does have separate property, there is a right of reimbursement for a period of time (i.e., if the other spouse dies there is a time limit on seeking reimbursement).

Note that spouses each owe a duty to support the other out of their own separate property if there is no community property. Family Code section 4301.

"Necessaries of life" include food, shelter, clothing, and the expenses of a final illness.

Thurman W. Arnold III
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April 07, 2010
  Am I LIABLE for my husband's GAMBLING DEBTS?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. My husband won't stop gambling. Am I liable for his gambling debts?

Janet, Lake Havasu, AZ

The community property that the two of you own is liable as to satisfy his gambling obligations, assuming there is any left. Whether you are liable to the Indian Casino or Las Vegas hotel beyond your share of the community depends upon whether you have an independent contractual relationship with them - i.e., a line of credit in your name.

As between you and your husband, unless you consented to his gambling he may owe you (if your separate property is somehow attached to satisfy the debt) or to the community estate a reimbursement or indemnification right.

If he is a professional gambler and this is his "work" the outcome would be different. The outcome may also depend on whether the community benefited from the gambling, i.e., if winnings were used to support the community, then a court may deem it fair to share the obligation as to "losings".

This right of reimbursement would similarly exist if he squandered money on drugs, or prostitutes, and so on - assuming you can prove it and trace the money! The question is whether you consented and ripens when you can establish that his conduct violated fiduciary duties owing you. One never knows, however, how a judge will treat this on a case by case basis but the law if moving towards greater accountability.

If his gambling does amount to a breach of fiduciary duties owing you as a result of your marriage or domestic partnership, you have substantial remedies.

To learn more about breach of fiduciary duties and what they may mean for you, click here!

Thurman W. Arnold III
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April 07, 2010
  Q. Who is liable for debts that we assign between us in our divorce settlement?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. Who is liable for debts that we assign between us in our divorce settlement?

After property is divided incident to divorce or legal separation it is no longer community property; it is the separate property of the recipient. This separate property always remains liable to pay your own debts no matter when they were incurred. Even if that debt is assigned to the other spouse in the divorce division, you remain liable on the debt as between you and the creditor. Family Code section 916(a)(1).

Your separate property and what you receive at the time of the division is not liable for the other spouse's debts, whether incurred before or during marriage, and you are not liable for those debts unless the debt was assigned to you in the settlement.

If your property is nonetheless applied to satisfy your spouse's debts by a creditor, you have a further right of reimbursement against your former spouse, plus interest and possibly attorney fees.

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January 18, 2010
  Are my EARNINGS during marriage LIABLE for my spouse's PREMARRIAGE DEBTS?
Posted By Thurman Arnold

Q. Are my earnings liable for my spouse's debts incurred before marriage?

A. Earnings during marriage are not liable for your spouse's debt incurred before marriage so long as these earnings when received are held in a deposit account which is not also in your spouse's name, and as to which they have no right to withdraw funds.

Once these monies go into the common pot, however, they become available to satisfy debts incurred prior to marriage. Family Code section 911.

Your earnings are liable for debts the other spouse incurs after the date of marriage, because the earnings are community property and debts incurred during marriage are community debts.

The only way to avoid this is by way a prenup or post-nup established before the debt is incurred (which agreement may limit or preclude the creation of community property).

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