Am I Liable If My Spouse Causes a Car Accident?

When someone negligently or recklessly causes a car accident, victims have the power to seek financial restitution through personal injury lawsuits in California. A lawsuit could order the at-fault person (or his or her insurance company) to pay for the victims’ damages, including property damage, hospital bills, lost wages, and pain and suffering. If your spouse causes an accident and becomes a defendant in a car accident lawsuit, you may wonder if you share liability because of your marriage.

Liability Laws Within a Marriage

The California Family Code Section 1000 answers the question of a spouse’s liability for a car accident. This law directly states that a married person will not be liable for any injury or damage the person’s spouse causes, unless the married person would have been liable for the accident had the marriage not existed. Therefore, unless the married person was also negligent in causing or contributing to the car accident, he or she would not be liable.

If the married person is liable for a car accident, the community estate will be the first source of payment for damages, and the married person’s separate property the second source. This is only the case, however, if the married person’s negligent act or omission occurred while the married person was doing something to benefit both spouses. If the married person’s actions were not for the benefit of the couple, the married person’s separate property will become the first source of payment, and the community estate second.

In other words, if your spouse causes a car accident while driving to the grocery store to purchase food for the household, a payment of victims’ damages would first come from community property, or shared assets within the marriage. If, however, your spouse was not driving for the benefit of the community, liability would land on his or her personal and separate assets first, before any remaining debt came from community property.

Community vs. Separate Property in California

California is one of only nine states that use a community property law. This law looks at marriage as a partnership, in which each person is an equal co-owner of any property either spouse acquires during marriage. Any and all properties a married person acquires during a marriage will become community property. Each spouse also owns half of the other spouse’s regular income. Separate property, on the other hand, is property a spouse acquired before marriage. Any gifts or inheritance for one spouse will also remain separate property.

Although you will not absorb legal liability for a car accident your spouse caused, you may still end up paying a settlement or judgment out of your own money. This is because most bank accounts, savings, assets, and properties between a married couple are community property in the eyes of California law. If you and your spouse use a joint bank account, for example, with both of your separate incomes combined within the account, a judgment award may come from the shared account – regardless of whose money is actually in the account.

How to Protect Your Assets

In California, if you wish to separate your assets from your spouse’s and protect them should your spouse cause a car accident, you have to convert community property. You will have to inform your spouse of your desire to convert the property, and you both must agree on the change.

Use separate bank accounts and consult with an attorney about how to keep assets separate from your spouse’s. You may need to create and sign an agreement in which your spouse forfeits his or her rights to a certain type of shared property. Converting community property into separate property can protect you from liability if your spouse causes a car accident in California.