Most states use common property statutes that specify ownership is assigned to the person whose name appears on the applicable documentation, according to Nolo. Items with no documents attached belong to the person who paid for them or received them as a gift. Nine states use community property laws that assign ownership of property acquired after marriage to both parties, regardless of whose name appears on pertinent documents, or whether any documents exist.
In common law states, the spouse whose name appears on a title or deed owns the property, and that spouse can leave it to anyone, but the surviving spouse is entitled to a share, explains Nolo. Anything with both spouses' names on an ownership document belongs to both, but there are two legal methods for sharing ownership. The most common shared status means that when one spouse dies, the property automatically goes to the survivor, even if the deceased spouse's will specifies otherwise. The other legal way to share property means that when one dies, he can leave his half to anyone.
Property laws in community property states are more complicated, says Nolo. These states distinguish between separate and community property. Generally, anything purchased after marriage is considered to be equally owned by both parties, even if only one spouse's name is on the legal documentation. Anything owned by one spouse before the marriage is considered separate property. Community property laws are superseded by a legal written agreement between both parties.