Equitable Doesn’t Always Mean Equal: Four Things You Need to Know About Asset Division in Washington

When you get divorced in Washington, what property do you get to keep? Washington is a community property state, so all of the assets—and debts—acquired by either you or your spouse during the marriage are divided up in a just and equitable manner. It’s important to understand, though, that just and equitable doesn’t always mean equal—otherwise, you could be in for quite a shock when the final division of property comes about.

Here are four things that you need to know about asset division and Washington law that might surprise you.

  1. Separate Property Is Only Separate if You Kept It That Way All Along

One of the first things that the court will do is look at all of the assets that you and your spouse have and determine what is community property and what is separate property. Separate property could include things like cars and houses that were yours alone before you got married or an inheritance that you received in your name only. Community property is generally subject to division between you and your spouse, usually (but not always) the court will award each party his/her separate property.

Of course, the law is full of exceptions to the rules, including this one. If you gave your spouse equal control over the property during your marriage or comingled an inheritance with marital funds, that once-separate property likely became part of the household’s community property. It can be difficult to assert that the property is still separate unless you treated it that way all along. The court may consider it unfair to suddenly let that property revert to one spouse alone. In some cases, even commingled property can be characterized as separate by using a forensic account procedure known as “tracing”.

  1. Marital Infidelity Has Nothing to Do With How Property Is Divided

A lot of people think that the courts will punish someone over their marital infidelity by awarding the faithful (or “injured”) spouse a greater share of the assets. It doesn’t happen that way in Washington. The only time your spouse’s marital infidelity might come into play is if he or she spent an exorbitant amount of money on the person he or she was unfaithful with.

For example, the court isn’t going to consider dinners in a fancy restaurant to be exorbitant. Even the occasional piece of jewelry or birthday gift isn’t likely to be a problem, as long as it keeps with the general budget of the household.

However, if your spouse set his or her paramour up with an apartment, a gym membership, and put a lot of expensive food, clothing, and accessory items on a joint credit card, that’s a significant expense to have come out of the household funds (or debt to have to divide).

You could probably convince a judge that you deserve a bigger distribution of the remaining assets or a smaller share of the family debt because your spouse had dissipated marital assets or created marital assets solely for his or her own pleasure and without your consent or knowledge.

  1. Waste of Marital Funds Can Sometimes Lead to an Inequitable Division of the Remainder

Waste and dissipation of marital funds are two topics that are closely tied together, but they’re slightly different. Think of dissipation as spending household money on things that don’t benefit you but at least you know where the money went. Waste is just what it sounds like—a spouse may purposefully waste marital funds rather than divide them with his or her spouse.

For example, your spouse may take a sudden pre-divorce trip to Las Vegas and proceed to gamble away the savings account without your knowledge or consent. That information could be enough to get a judge to award you a larger share of any remaining assets, like the equity in your home.

Keep in mind, however, that waste is often hard to prove and long-term habits can be seen as mere entertainment, not purposeful waste. For example, if your spouse routinely went gambling with your full knowledge (even if you didn’t particularly care for the habit), the court may view the occurrences as mere entertainment—so long they weren’t an abuse of his or her discretion to use some of the household money that way.

  1. The Duration of Your Marriage May Factor Into the Division of Assets and Debts

There are no hard-and-fast rules regarding a marriage’s length and the division of assets, but judges are inclined to approach short marriages differently than long-term marriages. If your marriage was fairly short, the judge may be inclined to restore both you and your spouse to your financial position pre-marriage, unless you and your spouse signed a prenuptial agreement.

If your marriage was fairly lengthy, the judge may look more carefully at each of your situations and try to divide assets and debts so that you each have approximately the same financial outlook for the future.

Asset division can be complicated, even when you think it should be simple. Contact Madison Law Firm and let one of our attorneys guide you through this confusing and difficult time.

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