Washington is a community property state, which means the general approach to dividing marital assets is splitting them down the middle. Separate property, however, can escape the division process.
Especially for high-asset couples, establishing the boundaries between separate and community property can make a difference when it comes to division. Understanding the basic principles of how separate property works can help you protect yourself financially.
Acquisition outside of marriage
Separate property consists of anything you acquired before the beginning of the marriage and after its ending. For this purpose, the end of the marriage happens when the spouses show intent to divorce. Some examples include moving out, filing for divorce or separation, or dividing their assets.
Separate gifts and inheritance
If you receive a gift specifically for you rather than both of you, the gift may count as separate property. You may need to prove the gift was only for you. Generally, this is easier if it came from your side of the family, as most judges are quicker to assume such a gift was specifically for you, not your spouse. The same rule applies to inheritances; however, the language of the will or other instruments is typically specific about the intended recipient.
Effect of cohabitation
Many couples begin living together and merging their finances before formal marriage. Washington courts generally treat assets and debts you acquired during this time period as community property, sometimes referring to it as quasi-community property.
Tracing an asset's origin
Sometimes proving an asset is separate means having to trace back a series of transactions. For example, you may sell a separate asset and buy something else with its proceeds. The second item would be separate property as well, but you would need to show that the funds to buy it came from separate property.
Allowing separate assets to mix with community property can make establishing their separate nature difficult later on. This is particularly common in cases where a spouse deposits separate funds into a joint bank account. If you want to keep your property separate, avoid creating situations that make tracing it more difficult.