All monies earned and property acquired during a marriage are presumed to be Community Property.  The only exceptions are properties acquired by gift or inheritance, and personal injury awards for pain and suffering.  Each spouse is the owner of a one-half interest in all Community Property.  The monies and properties acquired during a marriage are presumed to be Community Property regardless of which spouse:  earned, won, or found the money; or made the purchase.  The Court does not consider the name in which the title or deed is held, or in whose possession the property is held.  All earnings, interest, dividends, rents, income, growth, and increased value of Community Property is deemed to be Community Property.  Any and all debts and financial obligations incurred during the marriage are presumed to be community debts, regardless of which spouse actually created the obligation, or the others spouse’s knowledge that the debt had been incurred.

All properties owned prior to marriage, or acquired during marriage by way of gift, inheritance and personal injury award for pain and suffering are presumed to be Separate Property.  The spouse that was in possession of or holding title to the Separate Property prior to marriage is the sole owner of all rights, titles, and interest in that Separate Property.  The act of marriage does not affect the characterization of Separate Property and does not convert Separate Property into Community Property.  All earnings, interest, dividends, rents, income, profits, growth and increased value of Separate Property during marriage remain Separate Property.

However, if a spouse “commingle” their Separate Property with the marital Community Property that spouse’s Separate Property will be converted to Community Property unless it can be clearly traced to its Separate Property origin.   It does not matter if the spouse intentionally or accidentally commingles their property.  If a spouse desires to maintain their Separate Property as separate the burden is on them to keep the property clearly separate.  The Court will presume that all property in the possession of either spouse is Community unless it can be proven to be Separate.  Debts and financial obligation of either spouse incurred before marriage will remain the separate debt and obligation of the spouse that incurred the debt.

Only nine (9) of our fifty (50) States uses the principles of Community Property law to characterize the ownership status of the property.  The majority of our States apply the Common Law doctrine to determine ownership of property acquired before, during or after marriage.  Under Common Law, the spouse holding title to, earning, or acquiring property by any means is the sole owner of that property.  The other spouse has no ownership interest whatsoever in the Separate Property owned by their spouse.  There is no such thing as Community or Marital property under the Common Law doctrine, there is only separate property.

If a married couple moves from, or to, a Community Property State, or relocates several times during the marriage ownership of property is determined by the law of the State in which the couple resided at the time the property was acquired.   It does not matter which State the couple was living in at the time of marriage, property ownership is determined by the law of the State in which they resided at the time the property is acquired.   The characterization of property does not change simply because the married couple moves from Community Property to a Common Law State.

An interesting problem can arise if the two spouses are residing in different States at the time property is acquired.  Title to “Real Property” (land) is determined by the law of the State in which the land is situated.  So if the title to land is taken in just one spouse’s name, that land is the Separate Property of the one spouse holding the title.  Characterization of “Personal Property” is determined by the law of the State which has the most substantial interest in the ownership of the personal property.  That can be a difficult question.

For determining ownership of property acquired by an unmarried couple, please see our section on Committed Intimate Relationship doctrine.

Property Rights of Unmarried Couples

Community Property rights can only be acquired by parties to a legal marriage.  If there is not a legal marital community, there cannot be community property rights.  Our Washington State Supreme Court has adopted a “Committed Intimate Relationship” (CIR) doctrine which vests some unmarried couples with “quasi-community” property rights, which are virtually identical to the Community Property rights of legally married couples.

Though the Court has failed declare exactly what factors may be considered when determining the existence of a Committed Intimate Relationship, it has declared five factors that must be considered:  (1) Continuous cohabitation; (2) Duration of relationship; (3) Purpose of relationship; (4) Pooling of resources and services for mutual benefit; and (5) Intent of the parties.   The Court has failed to clarify how to determine whether the facts of each relationship is sufficient to satisfy each of these required factors.  It is still a case by case decision after considering the facts of each relationship.

The underlining principles are that parties to the long-term committed relationship are entitled to the protection of property rights acquired during that relationship.  The Court wants to prevent the unjust enrichment of one of the partners to the relationship.  The “community like” relationship creates “community like” property rights.  Income and property acquired during a CIR are characterized in a similar manner as income and property acquired during a marriage.  Therefore, all property and debts acquired during the CIR are presumed to be owned and owed by both parties to the CIR.  Our Court could find no better property right principles for CIR couples than our established Community Property laws.

Parties in a CIR are not entitled to an award of “Spousal Support”, because there is no spouse in a CIR.

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