Under Washington law, debts or assets acquired during the course of a marriage are generally deemed community property that is subject to equal division upon divorce. Property acquired prior to marriage is usually exempt from that division. However, Washington differs from other community property states in that it allows a divorce court to look at all the assets of the parties when making a property division. In some ways, the system resembles what is known elsewhere in the U.S. as equitable distribution.
In dividing assets and debts, a Washington divorce court will consider such factors as the length of the marriage, each spouse’s contributions to the marriage and each spouse’s total financial worth and earning capacity. A spouse with a larger amount of separate assets might be given less of a share of marital property, especially where the other spouse has lower earnings.
Defining what is community vs. separate property can be tricky. If one spouse receives a gift or inheritance during marriage, it is generally considered separate. Also, if a spouse bought a rental property with money available prior to the marriage, the rental income and the property itself may be considered separate. But if the spouse co-mingles funds from the rental property in a joint account, community property law may apply. Furthermore, if a spouse acquires property located in a state that doesn’t recognize community property, a Washington court may treat it as “quasi-community” property.
Once the spouses’ assets and debts — both jointly and separately held — have been quantified, the court will decide on a fair division, considering the entire financial and familial situation. This may result in certain large assets remaining in one spouse’s ownership or possession, such as where it is found to be in the best interests of the couple’s children to remain in the family home until adulthood.
It’s important to note, too, that, spouses can, by entering a separation agreement with the aid of skilled family law counsel, directly control the disposition of their assets and debts without the court having to decide. It most cases, the parties’ express agreement on property division will be adopted.
If you have questions about how to determine how community property law would be applied in your divorce proceeding or you need to draft a community property agreement, Leslie R. Bottimore of Bottimore & Associates, P.L.L.C. in Tacoma is here to help. Schedule a consultation by contacting us online or calling 253-272-5653.