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Community property personal injury damages shall be assigned to the party who suffered the injuries unless the court, after taking into account the economic condition and needs of each party, the time that has elapsed since the recovery of the damages or the accrual of the cause of action, and all other facts of the case, determines that the interests of justice require another disposition. In such case, the community property personal injury damages shall be assigned to the respective parties in such proportions as the court determines to be just, except that at least one-half of such damages shall be assigned to the party who suffered the injuries.
Valerie Jean (“wife”) and Brian James (“husband”) Delvin were married in July 1975, and separated in May 1977. At that time, wife initiated proceedings to dissolve the marriage, but the parties reconciled prior to the entry of a final judgment of dissolution. The couple remained together until May 1981, and wife later filed the instant action to dissolve the marriage. Prior to the time the parties first separated, husband was severely injured in an automobile accident, rendering him a paraplegic. The personal injury damages, totaling at least $ 175,000, were received by husband sometime after the parties reconciled. At trial, the evidence demonstrated that all of the personal injury damages had been spent, and that all of the property of the community at the time of separation was purchased with the personal injury proceeds. The trial court determined that all of the community property was traceable to husband's personal injury proceeds and awarded the bulk of the property (i.e., the realty and the mobile home) to husband. Wife was awarded some miscellaneous personal property "needed for her to get a new start."
Did the trial court err in awarding the bulk of the parties’ community property to the husband on the basis that the property was acquired with husband’s personal injury proceeds?
The only time proceeds from a personal injury award lose their character as community property personal injury damages is, in the absence of an express agreement, when such proceeds have been "commingled" with other community property and it is impossible to trace the source of the property or funds. Generally, "commingling" is a word of art, used to connote the mixture of separate property or funds with community property or funds. As used in section 4800, subdivision (c), "commingling" clearly refers to the mixture of community property personal injury damages with other community property into one undistinguishable, amorphous mass. In this case there was no issue for commingling. Although the community property personal injury damages were initially deposited in the couple's joint bank account, the property purchased with the community property personal injury damages was easily traced as the evidence demonstrated, and the parties agree, there was no other community property with which these damages could be commingled.
The court noted husband has suffered injuries from which in all likelihood he will never recover. The court also considered that the mobile home has been specially adapted for the husband's benefit and that even with the award of the realty and mobile home, husband, for the rest of his life, will probably exist at or below the poverty level. In contrast, wife has both the education and ability with which to secure gainful employment and be self-supporting. Exercising its discretion, the court determined the bulk of the community property (the mobile home and realty) should be awarded to husband, and awarded the remaining community property (some miscellaneous personal property) to wife. This award was a proper exercise of the court's discretion and will not be disturbed on appeal.