In the United States there are nine or ten states that are “community property” states. Most of these states had a strong influence from the Spanish back in the early settlement days that influenced the law as it developed up through modern times.
The concept of community property is relatively simple. Whatever a married couple acquires during their marriage belongs to the community. Of course there are some exceptions. Obviously, any property either spouse owned before the marriage is that spouse’s separate property. Anything that is a gift to either spouse during the marriage belongs to that spouse as his or her separate property. Likewise any property that either spouse inherits during the marriage belongs to that spouse as separate property. If either spouse is injured and wins a judgment for pain and suffering during the marriage, then that money is that spouse’s separate property, although any money awarded as compensation for lost wages would be community property.
So the concept is pretty simple. If a couple buys a house during the marriage, then they own it together; they both have an ownership interest in it. If they buy two cars, then they both have an ownership interest in both cars (NOT wife has her car and husband has his!). But if the wife’s parents give her a car, that car is her car, and the husband has no ownership interest in it. And if the husband’s dear Aunt Sally dies and leaves him her collection of antique thimbles, then the collection belongs to him separately, and the wife has no ownership interest in the thimbles.
Where I see the community property issue the most is in a divorce scenario. In a divorce both parties may want to keep the house and both have an ownership interest in it if it was purchased during the marriage. How, then, is the house divided? Often times the parties will agree that one of them will keep the house, and pay the other a sum of money—in effect buying out the other spouse’s interest in the house. Or the house may be awarded to one spouse, but the other spouse will be awarded other property from the community to compensate–so husband gets the house worth $200,000, and wife gets the lake property worth $200,000. Or if neither party can afford the house on his or her own, the house may be sold with each spouse taking a share of the proceeds (or debt).
This is an overview of how community property works in Texas. There are many fine details and lots of case law that sort out minute details of particular situations couples have faced in Texas.