Yours, mine, and ours… the 411 on Community Property

When you’re married, you share everything. Or, some people do. Regardless of what you choose to do as a married couple, when you’re divorcing in Washington State, you are going to share everything.

Washington is a community property state, which means any property you acquire during your marriage is community, and thus both parts of the community (spouse and spouse) are entitled to half of it. So those beautiful candlesticks you got as a wedding gift? Community. Anything you had prior to getting married is considered your separate property. That bookcase you’ve had since college? All yours.

There are, as always is true in the law, some exceptions on either side of this.

If you have received a gift (just to you – not to both you and your spouse), then that remains your gift and your separate property. If you’ve received an inheritance, whether it was before your marriage or during, then that, too, remains your separate property.

Buuuuuuut….. if you take any of your separate property and you mix it up with your community property until it becomes one big jumble and you can no longer tell where the separate property starts and where the community property ends, then you’ve got yourself some community property. (Think taking that inheritance money, putting it into the joint account, using all those funds for decades to pay the mortgage, repair the family car, pay for your son’s braces, etc.)

If you’ve got a bit of separate property, but during the course of your marriage your spouse has done considerable work on that property, then they may be eligible for a reimbursement for that work. For example, if you bought your home well before marrying your spouse, but during the course of the marriage your spouse spent a lot of time fixing up that house – new garage, new deck, new paint job – then your spouse is going to be allowed an “equitable lien,” meaning he/she won’t get that home as part of the property settlement, but they may be entitled to an amount equivalent to the work he/she has done to improve that home.

And let’s not forget about debts. If you had that debt before getting married, it’s going to keep being your debt. If you and your spouse have debt together, you’re going to both be responsible for that debt. Even if the credit card was only in your name, or the mortgage was only in his, it doesn’t matter. It was a debt that was acquired during the marriage, and thus it’s a community debt.

Part of getting divorced is splitting up all these assets and liabilities. When a court is looking at all of this, it’s going to do a fair and equitable split. This doesn’t necessarily mean 50-50 on everything – the court is not necessarily going to make you sell your house and split the profit (though it could), but if you get the house and it’s worth $300,000, then your spouse is going to get something(s) worth roughly the same amount.

Bottom line: if you had it before marriage, and you can prove you had it before marriage, it’s yours. If you got it as a married guy/gal, it’s yours to split.