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Are WORKER'S COMPENSATION BENEFITS Community Property? Yes and No!


Q. Are worker's compensation benefits received during marriage community property and so subject to division in dissolution proceedings?

Dividing Worker's Comp Benefits in Divorce

Marriage of Ruiz (4/14/11) 194 Cal.App.4th 348

In the recently published Fourth Appellate case of Marriage of Ruiz out of Riverside County, the parties' marriage lasted 32 years - married in 1973 (not the summer of love), they separated in March, 2005. A major bone of contention was how to characterize Wife's lump-sum worker's comp settlement of $250,000 received several years before the breakup, which netted $172,364 after attorney fees and costs. Wife believed it was all hers in the absence of proof by Husband of what portion of the money she received should be allocated between compensation for loss of past income verses what portion was intended to compensate her for loss of future earning capacity. Not surprisingly if Husband indeed had the burden of proof on this issue, he was never going to meet it - worker's compensation awards and financial settlements relating to personal injuries are simply gross numbers that some insurance bean counter crunches and then offers a gross settlement to resolve. No one in Wife's work compensation team was thinking about a fixed amount that was intended to resolve temporary compensation benefits as opposed to wife's lifetime loss of income producing ability - these claims just don't get settled in that fashion. Hence, if Husband had the burden of proving an imaginary apportionment he would never be able to do so and Wife would take all.

This case illustrates what can happen where one party or another has the "burden of proof" on a particular issue - often this is a short hand way of saying "you lose."

Four years later their divorce proceedings resulted in a discretionary trial court finding that $103,033 of the award was CP, with a balance of $71,311 being Wife's separate property. This finding was upheld on appeal as a reasonable exercise of discretion by Judge Irma Poole Asberry.

Wife argued that despite the statutory community presumption per Family Code section 760 that property acquired during marriage belongs to the community, existing caselaw (Raphael v. Bloomfield) (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 617) required a conclusion that the award is community property only to the extent that it is intended to compensate for the injured spouse's reduced income during the marriage and before separation, and for injury-related expenses that were paid with community funds. She urged that the remainder of an injured spouse's recovery is intended to compensate her for their diminished earning capacity and/or medical expenses which continue after the DOS.

Therefore, the Wife here argued that Raphael carved an exception to the rebuttable presumption that all property acquired during marriage is community property, instead creating a presumption that the award is the injured spouse's separate property. If true, this would impose the burden of proof as to allocation upon the noninjured spouse. Hence, she argued, if neither party could show evidence of how the award was calculated the party with the burden of proof would lose. The record on appeal was clear that neither party produced any evidence one way or the other because - frankly - there was and could be none.

Judge Asberry correctly declined to find that the general overriding FC section 760 presumption could be trumped by this supposed exception. Since Wife evidently concluded her best litigation strategy was not to offer any compromise solution for determining the competing community verses separate property interests, the court applied a formula suggested by Husband for apportioning the award as between CP and SP. Wife took and all or nothing position that was a high stakes gamble, and she lost. Interestingly, the decision is clear that had she suggested some other valuation method the trial court could have found that was more equitable than Husband's proposal instead, and it would not have been reversed.

Play hard ball, get slammed.

The rule reiterated by the Ruiz court is simple, fair, and obvious. It is already established that periodic disability retirement payments which are received during marriage are community property, in that they are intended to compensate the community for loss of income that the injured spouse would otherwise have earned. Periodic disability payments received after separation are the separate property of the injured spouse alone for his or her diminished earning capacity. Citing the California Supreme Court in Marriage of Jones (1975) 13 Cal.3d 457, the Riverside justices stated "[s]o long as the marriage subsists, the [injured spouse's] reduced earnings worked a loss to the community. But such community loss does not continue after dissolution; at that point the earnings or accumulations of each party are the separate property" of each. "[O]nly such payments as are received during marriage are community property."

But within the context of worker's compensation permanent disability awards, as was presented here, Raphael had concluded that the timing of the award (i.e., whether received before or after separation) should not dictate the outcome - instead the inquiry was what portion was intended to compensate the injured spouse for his/her reduced earnings during the marriage, which would be CP. Again, a question that is not likely to be answered by the non-injured spouse because they have no access to such information assuming it even was part of the settlement calculation; yet, this perhaps reasonably did suggest to Wife's attorney he might successfully argue that the burden of proof was hence placed upon the Husband.

The Ruiz Court decided that neither party had a burden of proof that would create a rebuttable presumption in the favor of one or the other because the trial court properly concluded that the award was part community and part separate property of Wife. The issue was then for the trial court to decide in terms of equitable apportionment of the competing interests. "In doing so, the court may use any method which fairly apportions the assets or its value between community and separate property interests. Because it is the court's obligation to make an equitable apportionment, neither party has the burden of proof in the sense that a failure of proof will result in an award of the asset in its entirety to the other party."

Thus, in equitable apportionment cases involving disability awards, which includes all hybrid mixes of community/separate attributes, a disadvantaged party (here the Husband who could not marshal much less control the evidence of what the worker's comp carrier intended when it settled Wife's case) does not lose simply because of a failure of their access to proof. Instead trial courts are free to fashion any result which works substantial justice. This was fair because nothing indicated that Wife had received any temporary disability benefits during the marriage that got banked - this lump sum settlement was all that she apparently received for the total loss occasioned to her, and to the community, for the injuries she suffered.

To the extent that the Wife argued the trial court's division of the CP amounts vs. the SP amounts was arbitrary, she had no right to complain because she never suggested any other measure that the trial court might use in supporting a different allocation scheme.

So, the lesson is this: Play hardball, get slammed..... (mediate your disputes instead, and don't disconnect from reasonableness - one never knows how a court might rule!)

Thurman W. Arnold III, C.F.L.S