Legal Notes

Community property laws and long term marriages

By Terry Lee, attorney at law

Editor’s Note: This article will give a general overview of community property law. It is a general discussion of the principles and outcomes, but is not a substitution for specific legal advice from competent counsel.

Community property is simply defined as all assets acquired during the marriage through the labor and sweat of either spouse. It can also include property acquired otherwise and made community property by agreement of the spouse or by the spouses commingling the property so that whatever was separate becomes community.

Spouses in community property states like Washington can own property either as a community or as their own separate property. For example, a pension benefit acquired prior to marriage is separate property. Pension benefits acquired during the marriage are community property.

If spouses make an agreement in writing, the pension acquired before marriage could become community property. Most often we see individuals receiving an inheritance and then putting that money into joint accounts so that after some time, it is hard to distinguish the separate inherited money from the jointly earned community money.

Community property passes to the survivor when one spouse dies. It is usual in long term marriages for the spouses to have a community property agreement. A community property agreement makes simple the property transferring from a deceased spouse’s estate to the surviving spouse without probate. Community property agreements usually have a provision that states upon either filing for divorce or legal separation, the community property agreement is revoked.

Community property laws are in a dozen or so states. Community property law affirms co-ownership of assets created during the marriage.

Property ownership is important when a spouse dies or when spouses get a divorce. For many couples who treat their marriage as a partnership through the good and the bad times, community property laws make it extremely easy for the surviving spouse to transfer the remaining property to the surviving spouse.

Prior planning prevents problems. Property laws and community property agreements, when appropriate, can make the partnership of marriage easier to resolve when the marriage ends by either death or divorce, so consult an attorney to get the best tool for your situation.

Vancouver Attorney Terry Lee specializes in wills, family law and probate. For information, contact Lee at 360-891-1100 or go to