Following a divorce, the court must divide the property between the spouses. Before legislatures equalized property allocation between both spouses, many divorce statutes substantially favored property allocation to the wage-earning spouse. These statutes greatly disadvantaged women disproportionately because during the 18th, 19th, and early-20th centuries, the participation of women in the workplace was much less than it has become during the latter-half of the 20th century and early part of the 21st century. The statutes failed to account for the contributions of the spouse as homemaker and child-raiser.
Modern courts recognize two different types of property during property division proceedings – marital property and separate property. Marital property constitutes any property that the spouses acquire individually or jointly during the course of marriage. Separate property constitutes any property that one spouse purchased and possessed prior to the marriage and that did not substantially change in value during the course of the marriage because of the efforts of one or both spouses. If the separate property-owning spouse trades the property for other property or sells the property, the newly-acquired property or funds in consideration of the sale remain separate property.
Modern division of property statutes strive for an equitable division of the marital assets. An equitable division does not necessarily involve an equal division but rather an allocation that comports with fairness and justice after a consideration of the totality of the circumstances. By dividing the assets equitably, a judge endeavors to effect the final separation of the parties and to enable both parties to start their post-marital lives with some degree of financial self-sufficiency. While various jurisdictions permit recognition of different factors, most courts at least recognize the following factors: contribution to the accumulation of marital property, the respective parties’ liabilities, whether one spouse received income-producing property while the other did not, the duration of the marriage, the age and health of the respective parties, the earning capacity and employability of the respective parties, the value of each party’s separate property, the pension and retirement rights of each party, whether one party will receive custodial and child support provisions, the respective contributions of the spouses as a homemaker and as a parent, the tax consequences of the allocations, and whether one spouse’s marital misconduct caused the divorce. Most jurisdictions also give the family court judge broad jurisdiction by providing judges with the right to consider any other just and proper factor.
When assigning property, judges cannot transfer the separate property of one spouse to another spouse without the legislature having previously passed an enabling statute. Whether such an enabling statute exists varies between jurisdictions.