December 14th, 2022
How is Property Divided in a Washington Divorce?
When you marry your partner, the last thing on your mind is finding yourselves facing a divorce. However, over half of all marriages end in a separation. Whether one spouse did something unforgivable or both spouses drifted apart over the years, dissolving the marriage may be your best option for moving forward. Even relatively amicable separations can be stressful and overwhelming, so it’s natural to feel intimidated by the divorce process in Washington state. It’s important to recognize that you do not have to navigate this challenging time alone—enlisting the support of a caring and experienced Seattle divorce lawyer is a great way to ensure you understand your options and feel empowered to make informed decisions about your future. One of the most time-consuming aspects of the divorce process is navigating the division of property. Let’s look at how property division is typically addressed during the divorce process in Washington state.
Understanding Community Property and Separate Property
Only a handful of states in the Union, including Washington, are considered “community property” states. This means that the assets the spouses acquired during the course of their marriage are considered community property and will be divided equitably among the parties during the divorce. For instance, if you and your spouse purchased a home a few years into your marriage, you’ll have to determine how to divide it between you as you negotiate the terms of your divorce, even if only one of you is on the title. To put this another way, Washington generally only cares when property was acquired (during or outside of the marriage), rather than who it was acquired by. Wages and wealth of both spouses amassed during the marriage are typically considered community property.
Exceptions apply. Separate property refers to assets you or your spouse possessed before entering the marriage, such as real estate purchased with individual funds. Separate property will generally remain the property of the owning spouse as long as it is not mixed with marital property. If one spouse seeks to prove that community property is actually separate, they must demonstrate their position with ‘clear and convincing evidence’; roughly 75% certainty.
What classifies as separate or community property will vary based on your circumstances, so you should discuss the specifics of your situation with a trusted divorce attorney to better understand what to expect as you approach the topic of property division.
Defining “Fair and Equitable” Division of Property
When a Washington court approaches property division, it seeks to find a solution that is “just and equitable.” It’s essential to understand that just and equitable does not always mean equal, so do not assume that your community property will be split an even 50-50. Instead, the court will use several factors to determine how to allocate property between the spouses in such a way that both have the resources necessary to embark on their newly independent journeys. For example, the couple may decide to sell their home, but the funds may not be divided exactly down the middle. Perhaps the court will award a higher percentage of these funds to the spouse with fewer assets to put them on a more even ground with the higher-earning spouse. Note that while separate property is not generally divided by courts, the judge still has the discretion to do so to achieve an equitable outcome. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet in the law.
Factors That Influence the Property Division Process
Marital relationships are unique. Washington courts recognize that no two divorces are the same, so they rely on a variety of factors to determine a divorce agreement that best suits the parties’ specific needs. Some of these factors include the length of the marriage, the amount and value of the community property, the amount and value of each spouse’s separate property, the income and earning capacity of each spouse, and the number of children involved (if applicable). The court will also address any other circumstances, such as whether one spouse has a disability that prevents them from finding employment or requires ongoing medical care. In general, long-lasting marriages may require more consideration and take longer to dissolve than marriages that last a year or less.
How Property Division May Influence Spousal Maintenance
Working through a divorce involves a series of negotiations, decisions, and compromises. Every aspect of the divorce, from handling property division to creating a parenting plan, impacts other topics and decisions. It’s often the case that the court will consider the division of community property while assessing whether spousal maintenance is necessary or appropriate. It may decide that the child’s primary custodial parent will remain in the home to maintain a stable and secure home environment, but this spouse may require spousal maintenance to assist with the mortgage costs or to attend courses to become more employable. Whatever your divorce goals and challenges may be, consider enlisting the guidance of a caring and knowledgeable Seattle attorney to help you navigate this process with greater clarity and confidence. Together, you can negotiate a divorce settlement that gives you the stable foundation you need to begin the next chapter of your life.
If you are looking for caring and compassionate legal guidance in the Seattle area, contact the Hemmat Law Group today at (206) 682-5200 to speak with a dedicated divorce attorney.
Andrew Linden is an Associate Attorney at Hemmat Law Group. Mr. Linden graduated from Knox College in 2016 and received his J.D. from Lewis & Clark Law School in 2019. He is a member of the Washington State Bar.