State laws often govern how property is classified during a divorce, so where you live becomes very important. For instance, states that use community property laws include Arizona, Idaho, California, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Wisconsin and Washington.

So, the first thing to do prior to a divorce is to determine what set of rules your state uses. After that, you may be interested in finding out if you own any separate property to which your spouse won't have a claim during the divorce. Five examples of separate property include:

  1. Items you brought into the marriage with you, that were purchased before you legally tied the knot. Perhaps you bought your own car two years before the marriage, for example.
  2. A gift or inherited assets that were supposed to go directly to you alone. It is important, when this happens, to keep those assets separate after you receive them.
  3. Items you bought with those funds. For instance, perhaps your parents left you $50,000, you kept it in a separate bank account, and then you used $30,000 to buy a new car under only your name.
  4. Items you trade for other items that you own alone. Maybe your inheritance was a car, a collector's item, and you sold it. You used the money to buy a more modern vehicle. Since that first car was yours alone and you only used those funds on the second car, it's likely still separate property -- even though you bought it during the marriage. This can also happen when you trade one item directly for another, without money exchanging hands.
  5. Debts that you had when you got married. For instance, perhaps you took out student loans in 2004, graduated in 2008, and got married in 2009. Almost a decade later, you're getting divorced, but you're still paying off those loans. They likely belong to just you, not your spouse.

This is not a comprehensive list, but it does give you a good place to begin. It also shows the importance of knowing your property ownership rights and obligations during a divorce.

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