What Are TRACINGS In California DIVORCE Proceedings? Tossed Salad and Mixed Vegetables!

Q. My attorney has used the word "tracings" several times when talking about how to figure out my community interest in property in my divorce, and I really don't understand how this works. Can you give me a simple explanation?

A. Simple - unlikely. But here's a thorough explanation!

Tracings may be required by California law in a number of settings in order to find out what each spouse's share of the community property is. They generally show up in several recurring situations, but unfortunately for simplicity's sake there are numerous permutations of where tracings come into play. Chief among them is where cash or assets that was used to purchase property was "commingled" (think tossed salad with separate property lettuce leaves and community property mixed vegetables) at the time it was contributed. Please use the search engine at the upper right to see my Blog Articles for the definitions of community and separate property.

These include:

  • Determining the community verses separate property attributes of an asset that was acquired with funds contributed during marriage that were a combination of each (CP and SP). This is called "characterization" - does the asset belong in whole or in part to the community estate, or to one party's separate estate, or both in different degrees? The community component is sometimes earnings that were used to pay down secured debt each month when, for instance, a mortgage principal payment is made for a separate property asset (a Moore-Marsden situation). It can include one time downpayments from joint bank accounts that contain community income or earnings (or separate property accounts that may have been commingled with joint funds or not or community property accounts that include separate property components) further complicated in the case of a refinance, and more.
  • It is extremely common that a community property asset (acquired during marriage, possibly but not necessarily in joint names), or improvements to it, traces partly or 100% to a separate property source. Many parents 'gift' their child part or all of the downpayment for the couple's first home. Or, a separate property asset (acquired during marriage but titled in one spouse's name alone - usually seen with real estate) may be purchased using joint funds. In either event there is a tracing right of reimbursement per Family Code section 2640 to the respective community or separate property interests that bought it, in the event of a dissolution or legal separation. FC §2640 is in the top five of all California property division statutes and is critical for an understanding of what your legal interests are if either spouse has any colorable claims to separate property used during marriage. Many middle income and high asset property division cases are a puzzle map of assets that are not what they seem at first glance.
  • There are a number of situations where reimbursement claims arise from the payment of joint or separate debts using money that the other spouse had an interest in (whether community funds or separate). Under limited situations there may be a right for the community, or the other spouse's separate property, to be reimbursed, but you will be required to trace these funds to claim them.
  • Often intended or unintended transmutations have occurred. Family Code section 852 is the chief transmutation statute, and another of the top five California dissolution property statutes. Transmutations involve a change in the character of property, from community to separate or from separate to community or separate to the other party's separate property. These commonly require tracings in order to establish the FC § 2640 interest. For instance, husband and wife own a residence together in joint names. It was purchased during marriage. But there is need for a refinance, and one spouse's credit is bad. The parties agree that husband will borrow the money, and the lender requires that wife sign a quitclaim deed before escrow can close. Husband assures wife 'not to worry.' Wife signs the transfer deed and doesn't seek legal advice. She has unwittingly transmuted her community interest to husband's separate property. Years later the property has appreciated. What is Wife's interest? (Breach of fiduciary duty questions have to be the subject of a separate Blog but, again, please try our search engine for more information!)

Did I say I would give a simple answer? No? Good!

In order to unwind transactions during marriage where monies and property with separate and community property attributes have been mixed together, the "separatizer" (the party seeking to establish their separate property contributions to the community or separate property of the other spouse or partner) has the burden of proof to present reliable tracing evidence to the Court. In order to settle even mildly complex dissolutions as between the parties without going to trial, this information must be provided and laid out in a concrete manner to convince the other side that you have the ability to meet your burden.

Here are some of the rules that apply the mechanics of tracings in dissolution actions and legal separations.

If the commingled funds are used to purchase property, the party who deposited the separate funds may attempt to trace the source of the funds used to purchase the property to establish that it is separate because separate funds were used to purchase it. This may overcome the presumption that property acquired during marriage is community. Marriage of Mix (1975) 14 Cal.3d 604.

If separate and community property or funds are commingled in such a manner that it is impossible to trace the source of the property or funds, the whole must be treated as community property. Marriage of Mix, supra.

If the title to the property was taken jointly, tracing cannot be used to overcome the presumption from the form of title. Marriage of Lucas (1980) 27 Cal.3d 808, 813-814.

Direct tracing and tracing through family expenses are two independent methods of tracing to establish that property purchased with commingled funds is separate property.

Direct Tracing

Separate funds do not lose their separate character when commingled with community funds in a bank account so long as the amount of separate funds can be ascertained and at no time period were the funds spent down below the balance of SP claimed unless replenished with SP instead of CP. Marriage of Mix (1975) 14 Cal.3d 604.

If money is withdrawn to purchase specific property, questions of fact that must be determined include (Marriage of Mix, supra):

  • Whether separate funds continue to be on deposit; and

  • Whether the drawer intended to withdraw separate funds.

The party seeking to establish a separate interest in presumptive community property must keep adequate records. The party must show the exact amount of money allocable to separate property and the exact amount of money allocable to community property before it can be said that the money allocable to separate property is not so commingled that all funds in the account are community property. Marriage of Frick (1986) 181 Cal.App.3d 997. If the payments claimed to be separate were made periodically, each payment must have been made when separate property funds were in the account and must have been accompanied by an intent to use those funds rather than community funds. Marriage of Higinbotham (1988) 203 Cal.App.3d 322, 329.

Tracing Through Family Expenses

The second method of tracing to establish that property purchased with commingled funds is separate property requires a consideration of family expenses. This tracing method is based on the presumption that family expenses are paid from community funds.

If at the time the property is acquired it can be shown that all community cash and income in a commingled account was exhausted by family expenses, then all funds remaining in the account at the time the property was purchased were necessarily separate funds. Marriage of Mix, supra.

This method can be used only when, through no fault of the spouse claiming separate property, it is not possible to ascertain the balance of income and expenditures at the time property was acquired. See v See (1966) 64 Cal.2d 778, 784.

The spouse claiming separate property must keep adequate records to overcome the presumption that property acquired during marriage is community property. See v See, supra. Most people don't.

The take-away: If you are contemplating a divorce and have tracing issues, protect your records now so that they do not 'disappear.' It can be very expensive to obtain bank statements and canceled checks dating back years, and with all of the bank failures and mergers today these records may become impossible to obtain. If you cannot meet your tracing burden of proof, you lose on the particular reimbursement issue.

As you probably have guessed, tracings are quite expensive and typically involve the assistance of a forensic accountant. Moreover, not just any attorney will know what to do with this information!

Thurman W. Arnold III