How Community Property Laws Could Affect Your Divorce

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September 1, 2011

With the exception of Oregon and a few others, nearly every state in the Western United States is what is known
as a “community property” state, including Washington. This distinction could have a tangible impact on the division of assets in a divorce case.

Community property laws are based on the principle that most property acquired during the marriage, with a few exceptions such as inheritances and gifts, is “community property,” or joint property of both spouses. In community property states like Washington, property is divided equally when the spouses divorce. Each party is also liable for one-half of the debts acquired during a marriage in a community property state. Property that wasacquired by one spouse prior to the marriage is considered “separate property,” or the sole property of that spouse. Community property laws also apply to registered domestic partnerships in Washington.

It sounds simple enough, but complications can arise, such as instances where community assets are used to improve separate property. If one spouse purchases a home prior to marriage, the home is likely separate property. But if community funds are used to improve the home, the community may be entitled to reimbursement. Further, if separate funds are used to pay off community debt, the spouse who pays the debt may be entitled to reimbursement as well.

Anyone considering a divorce should consult with a family law attorney to see how community property laws might impact their case.