Marital property refers to property that is acquired over the duration of a marriage. "Property" can be physical property such as real estate, cars, or furniture, or it can also mean money earned or invested, or future earnings, such as payment of royalties. There are a few exceptions to what is considered property of both spouses, though this may vary by region.
The consideration of marital property is usually only important in a few circumstances. If people sign a pre or post-nuptial agreement, they may make provisions about what happens to anything acquired during the marriage if it ends with the death of one spouse. Additionally, whenever there is a divorce, a judge determines how marital property is treated and distributed.
In some regions, community property laws prevail, and unless voided by a pre or post-nuptial agreement, spouses would each be entitled to half of all marital property. They might argue over what part of the property they want. For example, a divorcing couple with two homes of equal value could fight over who acquires which home. In general, each spouse gets half of all things that were obtained during the marriage, and can possibly even be entitled to half shares on future earnings from shared property, like from jointly owned businesses.
Other areas of the world determine the splitting of marital property in different ways, and there could be a host of factors that influence who gets property after divorce. These could include thinking about the needs of any children from the marriage, particularly in the home of the custodial parent. Other things judges might weigh are how long the marriage lasted, and the assets contributed by each spouse that either helped purchase marital property or that represents the value. In the best of circumstances, this division doesn’t come down to a judge’s decision and is instead negotiated by divorcing couples with a mediator or privately. Divorce can be bitter and many couples do devolve to fighting about property.
It should be noted that marital property refers to most things that were obtained during the marriage, but it usually doesn’t touch on property possessed before the marriage took place. Though this can vary, if a spouse enters a marriage with certain assets, the “owner-spouse” may be entitled to keep them should the marriage end. To be sure of this, and if couples want to protect their property, a pre-nuptial agreement is strongly suggested.
A few things acquired during the marriage are also usually not property of the couple. Most especially, people who inherit alone during the marriage are usually entitled solely to an inheritance. If a will says: “John and Mary get $20,000 US Dollars (USD),” this is inheriting together. If only John inherits the money, it’s John’s money and not marital property, and whatever John buys with the money could be excluded from being considered joint property.