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Can separate property become community property in Washington State?

It is important for people to understand that separate property can become community property.

When people decide to divorce one very important thing they must do is divide their property. According to Washington State law, property acquired after the marriage ceremony is considered community property. As such, the property belongs equally to both spouses and neither one can dispose of that property through transfer or sale without the permission of the other.

In a divorce, the court normally divides community property and awards each party their separate property. Separate property is defined as property that has been given to one spouse as a gift, inheritance, devise, bequest or descent. Additionally, property that was owned by the spouse prior to the marriage, and after the parties marriage is “defunct,” would also be considered separate property and therefore not normally subject to division. That said, there are instances where separate property could become marital property.

Mixing separate with community

One way that separate property could lose its status is by mixing it with community property. For example, one spouse has received a significant sum of money from a relative as an inheritance. The spouse mingles those funds with an account with both spouses’ names on it, thereby giving the other spouse access to that money. Overtime as money flows into and out of the account, the funds may all become community property. In a divorce, the other spouse might be able to successfully argue that the money is all community property.

Likewise, if a spouse marries and then adds the other spouse’s name to accounts that hold separate funds or stocks, a judge could rule that this asset has become community property in that it was a gift to the marital community. Spouses may decide to loan separate property to the other spouse and transfer that property into a community account. However, while the spouse, who initially owned the property, may consider the money to be a loan, a judge may not see it that way. As such the “loan” could be classified as a gift and therefore the receiving spouse would not have to pay it back in a divorce.

It is important to keep separate property separate from marital accounts. It may be possible to “trace” separate assets in a divorce but it is better to never even raise that issue by keeping separate assets separate.

Adding spouse’s name to deeds

No one wants to believe that their marriage will ever end in divorce, and some spouses make the decision to add the other spouse’s name to a house’s deed or to other properties. This can be a big mistake as a court may see this action as a transfer of ownership to the marital community.

Paying the mortgage or upkeep expenses on a separately owned property from community property may also lead to problems. During the marriage, wages are community property. If one spouse owns a home but either or both spouses make payments from wages, it could establish a community property interest for the other spouse over time. Dividing community property in Washington State can be complicated so it would be of great benefit for people to meet with a family law attorney or family law mediator if either spouse files for divorce.