August 22, 2019

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Determining Who Keeps the Car in a Divorce Case


Dividing up the property in a divorce can be extremely stressful. Of course, different assets are weighted differently in this process. To that end, determining who has the right to the family car can lead to a lot of legal and emotional turmoil because, as we all know, a car can be a person’s sole means for getting to work – especially in suburban and rural regions. Because of this, it’s important to understand some of the considerations that go into making such a decision.

Two Basic Types

To begin with, it’s a good idea to understand the law in your state and how that law affects the division of property in divorce proceedings. Some states utilize the “common law” doctrine to help facilitate the process of splitting up assets, while other states use what are known as “community property” principles to determine who gets what.

Common Law

Common law is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most common method for dividing up property, as it is employed in 41 different states. Under common law theory, a spouse is viewed as an individual with separate legal rights. Thus, a person involved in a divorce proceeding in a common law state is entitled to the family car, if and only if the vehicle is solely owned by that person. This essentially means that the family car goes to the spouse whose name is on the title.

If both names happen to be on the title, the couple must decide together, or allow the court to decide, who gets the car.

Community Property

Community property law is much less common, being used in nine states and two US territories, according to the IRS. It should be noted that, in Alaska, spouses may choose to initiate community property agreements – but this is optional. Under this theory, both spouses enjoy joint ownership of all (or most) labor, capital and property obtained during the course of the marriage. For this reason, it is paramount to determine when the family car was purchased. If you bought the car as a spouse, then the vehicle is technically owned by both you and your partner. If you bought the automobile prior to or after the separation, then the car is yours. Of course, if your former spouse purchased the car outside of the marriage, the vehicle belongs to him or her.

Separate Property

It’s important to note that property given solely to one spouse (as a family heirloom or something of the sort) is considered separate property. All assets obtained outside of the marriage would be included in this category as well. Separate property generally goes to the party who owns said property, but this may vary depending on the circumstances.

Dividing Property

In the case of common law, you may find yourself in a situation where both names are on the title of the vehicle. And in the case of community property, the car may be deemed a marital asset. In both cases, you’d have to decide who gets the car. One way to do this is through a property settlement agreement. This basically means that you and your spouse can make the decision together. In this case, you can ask your ex-partner to put the vehicle in your name. You may have to engage in some quid pro quo to get the car. For instance, you could trade furniture for the vehicle.

Failing that, the court may need to intervene, in which case the judge, using equitable distribution principles, may make one spouse pay the other in exchange for full ownership of the automobile.

However it pans out, it’s a good idea to have the right legal representation guiding you through the process. If you’re looking to lessen your stress level, you may want to reach out to an experienced divorce attorney.

About Sean Lally

Sean Lally holds a BA in Philosophy from Temple University where he also studied theatre for several years. Between 2007 and 2017, he worked as a professional actor for several regional theater companies in Philadelphia, including the Arden Theatre Co., EgoPo Productions, Lantern Theater and the Bearded Ladies. In 2010, Sean co-founded Found Theater Company, an avant-garde artist collective with whom he first started to cultivate an identity as a writer.

Over the past few years, Sean has been working as a content writer, focusing primarily on the ways in which unequal power distribution can negatively affect consumers, workers and “everyday people,” more broadly. He writes for a number of websites including,, and others.