Community Property in Washington Divorce

Going through a divorce, no matter how amicable, is emotionally and financially challenging. One of the most intricate (and often-disputed) aspects of the divorce process is how a couple should divide property between themselves.

What is community property in a Washington marriage?

In the state of Washington, the term “community property” commonly refers to the property a couple accumulates during their marriage. However, the term “community property” also refers to the way they must divide that property if they decide to divorce.

Often referred to as marital property, community property is the assets and debts you and your spouse have acquired while married. It includes things like your family home, cars, joint bank accounts, income, and investment accounts. It also includes any joint debt, such as your mortgage, car payments, and credit card bills. 

When you and your spouse divorce, you’ll be required to divide these shared assets and liabilities according to Washington’s community property divorce laws.

Community property vs. equitable distribution states

Family law is regulated by each state. In the U.S., states use either community property rules or equitable distribution rules to determine how marital property must be divided by spouses during a divorce. 

Equitable distribution states

Equitable distribution states require a divorcing couple to divide their marital property “equitably,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean an even share. Courts in equitable division states consider many factors when deciding what is a “fair” division of marital property for a particular couple. 

Community property states

Community property states take equal property division more literally, with most shared property divided equally. In community property states, each partner is entitled to half of whatever assets and liabilities they acquired while married. 

How is marital property divided in Washington?

Washington is a community property state. If you file for divorce in Washington, community property laws dictate that your marital property and debt must be divided equally between you and your spouse. 

But keep in mind that equal division can’t always mean splitting every asset and debt down the middle. After all, you can’t physically split a home or car. The value of these assets and debts are what will be split. In this case, you might be awarded the family home in your divorce, while your spouse might get your investment portfolio or an equalization payment from you representing half the value of the home. 

If you and your spouse have a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement, the terms of that agreement will supersede these property division rules. Furthermore, if you and your spouse are able to work together to develop a fair and agreed-upon marital settlement agreement and the court believes it is fair, that can be included in your settlement. 

Free Hello Divorce Download: What to Include in Your Settlement Agreement

What is (and isn’t) marital property in Washington?

Marital property in Washington is the property and debt you and your spouse owned or acquired during your marriage. Any assets owned by either of you before you got married, or inheritances or gifts given to one of you during your marriage, are likely considered separate personal property. You and your spouse are not required to divide your separate property with each other. 

Community property tends to include things like the following:

  • Real property like the family home or any investment property
  • Furniture and household items you purchased during your marriage
  • Vehicles such as cars, trucks, boats, or motorcycles that you purchased during the marriage, even if they’re titled in only one of your names
  • Salaries, wages, bonuses, or any other earnings by either or both of you during your marriage
  • Joint bank accounts that were opened or funded during your marriage
  • Investments such as stocks, bonds, or other investment accounts that were acquired or contributed to during your marriage
  • Contributions to retirement funds such as IRAs, 401(k)s, and pensions during your marriage, even if only one of you contributed to it
  • Joint debts incurred by either or both of you during your marriage
  • A business or partnership that began or was invested in during your marriage

Related: Special Considerations for Business Owners in Divorce

It's important to understand that there can be situations where one spouse’s separate property becomes community property and is then subject to division in the divorce. This can happen if you and your spouse have “commingled” your separate and marital property.

What about commingled property?

Property division can become a bit muddled when separate property gets mixed, or ”commingled,” with marital assets. When assets are commingled, they can lose their separate status and become subject to division in a divorce.

Common ways you may have commingled your separate property with your marital property include:

  • When you or your spouse move funds from a separate bank account to a joint bank account
  • When one of you owns real estate before marriage, but then both of you contribute to the mortgage or improvements during your marriage
  • When both of you contribute to a retirement account that was established before you were married
  • When one of you owned a business before you were married, but the other contributes to its operation and growth during your marriage
  • When you or your spouse use marital estate funds to pay off debt that was incurred by one of you before your marriage
  • When one of you receives a financial gift or inheritance, and it’s deposited into your joint account 

When separate property becomes commingled, it can be challenging to disentangle without clear documentation. 

What if we need help dividing our property?

The concepts of marital and separate property may seem simple in theory, but disputes often arise during the emotional turmoil of a divorce.

If you and your spouse are struggling to agree on the details of your property division, you might benefit from an outside professional’s help. You could choose to meet with a divorce mediator who will act as a neutral third party to help facilitate an agreement you both can live with. A collaborative divorce can involve separate divorce attorneys and mediation strategies to ensure that you both feel heard, understood, and supported. 

Read about the pros/cons of – and differences between – collaborative divorce and mediation here.

Unfortunately, if you can’t come to an agreement, litigation will leave this important decision in the hands of a judge. Whether you like it or not, once it becomes part of your judgment, you are both subject to the court’s decision. 

You can use a prenuptial agreement or postnuptial agreement to specify who gets certain marital assets in divorce. Learn about the benefits of these types of agreements here.

Divorce doesn’t have to be difficult or adversarial. At Hello Divorce, we are committed to helping people through the divorce process in the easiest and most affordable way possible. We can guide you through your divorce with the amount of legal help you prefer – no more and no less. We do this so you get exactly the help you need without paying for the stuff you don’t need. We also provide expert mediation services to couples who want to collaborate but need outside guidance.

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.