Divorce laws in California, like your relationship, are complex. It is a no-fault state, but you could find yourself at fault if you are not careful when deciding financial issues.

Your retirement account can be your most valuable asset heading into a divorce. How the law impacts your accounts can determine your long-term financial future.

What you can keep

Retirement accounts are community property under state law. However, that does not mean you split your 401(k) plan or IRA 50-50 with your spouse when you complete your divorce.

Money you put into your retirement account before your marriage is separate property. This is state law. The same is true for interest earned on your retirement accounts before you wed your spouse.

You and your spouse divide only assets that accumulated during the years of marriage. The separate property is yours, 100%.

The laws also apply in a California domestic partnership. Domestic partners have the same rights and benefits as married couples in the state.

What you can lose

You must divide retirement account funds accumulated during your marriage or domestic partnership. They are community property.

An accountant can assess the worth of your retirement assets. Determining monetary value is necessary before dividing assets between you and your spouse.

If you receive money, you can roll it over into your own qualified retirement plan. You can decide against accepting the money until the account owner retires, or you can cash out your share.

You also can reach your own settlement with your ex-spouse when dividing your retirement accounts. A judge must approve this agreement.

What you cannot afford

Emotions run hot in a divorce. Treat your money as a separate issue. It may sound cold, but it is vital to your financial future.

In a sense, a divorce settlement is like any other major financial transaction. You have to know the law and make it work in your interests to get a good deal.