Once married, spouses become a marital community in Washington. All property, such as automobiles and real estate, bought with earnings during the marriage or domestic partnership become the equal property of both parties. Debts and expenses assumed during the marriage are also their joint responsibility. Property owned prior to the marriage or domestic partnership is considered separate and not community property.
Definition of Community Property
After a marriage or registration of a domestic partnership, any property newly acquired becomes community property under state law in Washington. One spouse or domestic partner may control and manage the property, but may not take certain actions without the other's consent. For example, more than one-half of the community property cannot be bequeathed in a will or given to another party by one spouse or partner alone. A spouse or partner also cannot buy new property, or sell or mortgage community property without the consent of the other.
Stocks, bonds, real estate or other property either inherited, received as a gift or purchased with separate funds are not considered community property in Washington. The spouse who owns the separate property may continue to do whatever he pleases with it, without the consent of his spouse. Also, any inheritance received after a marriage or registration of a domestic partnership remains the separate property of the designated spouse or partner.
Powers of Attorney
Under Washington law, one spouse may be legally designated as an attorney-in-fact for the other spouse, receiving the power to sign documents on her behalf. This is known as having power of attorney, which is established when granted in writing. If a third party is assigned as the attorney-in-fact, both spouses need to sign a document clearly indicating that person has authorization to sign for both spouses or partners.
Division of Property and Debts
If a married couple or domestic partnership legally separates or divorces, responsibility for property and debts must be divided. A judge determines what is either community or separate property and divides assets and debts in an equitable manner between both spouses or partners. Factors taken under consideration by the judge include employment history, length of marriage and amount of property owned. An equitable division may not necessarily mean allocating half of the assets and debts to each spouse or partner; either may be allocated a larger percentage based on considered factors.
- Washington State Bar Association: Dissolution
- Washington Courts: Family Law Handbook
- Columbia Legal Services: Questions and Answers on Powers of Attorney
- California Courts. "Property and Debt in a Divorce or Legal Separation." Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.
- Texas Statutes. "Family Code, Title 1, Subtitle B, Chapter 3, Subchapter A: General Rules for Separate and Community Property." Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.
- Internal Revenue Service. "Part 25, Chapter 18, Section 1: Basic Principles of Community Property Law." Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.
- Alaska Court System. "Property & Debt for Married Couples." Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.
- Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 555 (03/2020), Community Property." Accessed Sept. 14, 2020.
Michelle Hornaday lives in Edmonds, Washington and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Washington State University and a Master of Education from Northern Arizona University. She is currently a freelance writer for various websites.