Washington State is one of the nine community property states in the country. This means that, as a general rule, spouses will own an equal interest in any property acquired during the marriage, even where only one spouse's name is on the bank account, paycheck, or title. This distinction has a significant impact on the division of assets and debts in a divorce.
What is Community Property?
Generally, community property is everything that is acquired by either party during the course of a marriage. The key here is the use of “generally,” as certain exceptions apply, perhaps most commonly in the cases of gifts or inheritances that are transferred to one spouse from somebody else during the marriage. Community property can include real estate, tangible assets, the earnings of both spouses, interest earned on investments, capital gains, and even retirement benefits. This also means that debts either spouse accumulates during the marriage will generally be considered community debts to the court. Spouses share responsibility for community debts unless a court order or enforceable agreement determines otherwise.
What is Separate Property?
Separate property in general will be the funds, real estate, investments, gifts, inheritances, heirlooms, etc. that a spouse acquires before the marriage or after the date of separation. Separate property can become community property to the court if such property becomes so commingled with community property that the two can no longer be distinguished.
Division of Property:
While understanding the differences between community and separate property is the starting point for understanding how a court might divide a couple's assets and debts, it is important to also know that the court examines each divorce on a case-by-case basis and will divide such assets and debts by what it deems to be just and equitable. In this context, “equitable” means fair, not a 50/50 split. The length of your marriage, your financial standing, parenting plan, etc. are all taken into account by the judge when dividing assets. Separate property held by each party will also be taken into account by the judge when making a determination of how things should be divided. If one spouse has a large amount of assets separately, it could mean that the other partner would receive more of the community assets in a divorce. Additional factors can also be taken into account when dividing assets, such as what each partner's primary role has historically been in a marriage. If one parent has primarily been raising the children and the other has been the primary earner and been able to accrue more separate assets due to this, the court will likely recognize the reasoning behind this discrepancy and make its decision accordingly.
Divorces are inherently stressful and nobody wants to get shortchanged. This is just a brief and very general overview of how asset division works in the state of Washington. Each situation is unique and you are going to need some assistance navigating through your specific situation. At Elise Buie Family Law, our attorneys regularly speak on family law and parenting plan matters. Elise has extensive experience in high-conflict parenting disputes. If you have any questions about Washington state divorce law, mediation or child custody, please contact us at [email protected] or 206-926-9848.