Washington is one of the nine states with community property laws, which means that marital assets and debts will be divided equally by a divorce court judge unless the estranged spouses come to another agreement. In states with equitable distribution laws, judges have the discretion to divide marital estates unequally if doing so would lead to a fairer outcome. However, only debts that are incurred and assets that are acquired during a marriage are divided when couples divorce in Washington. Obligations and assets that predate the marriage are generally considered separate property and debts.
Debts that would be considered separate and not subject to property division in a Washington divorce include student loans, personal loans, mortgages and credit card obligations that either spouse already had when they walked down the aisle. This can become an extremely thorny issue in situations where one spouse paid for the wedding and relied on credit to do so. In community property states, debts taken on by either spouse during a marriage become part of the marital estate, which means either spouse can be pursued for payment even if they received no benefit.
Things become more complex when separate property becomes commingled with the marital estate. This could happen if a car loan or mortgage that was taken on prior to a marriage is paid with community funds from a joint bank account or community funds are used to maintain or improve the vehicle or home.
Avoiding property division disputes
Washington state law requires assets and debts to be divided equally in a divorce, but it only applies to assets that were purchased and debts that were incurred during the marriage. Separate property and debts are not divided, but determining which assets and debts are separate is not always straightforward. Couples who wish to avoid these issues can act proactively by drafting prenuptial or postnuptial agreements.