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Is My Spouse Entitled To a Portion of My Inheritance During Divorce?

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A primary concern of spouses preparing for divorce is how the division of their assets will be determined and what their rights are toward certain property. Specifically, questions of inheritance and divorce can be simple on the surface but become complicated quickly based on other dynamics within the marriage. We delve into Washington’s distinction between community and separate property and how your inheritance may fall into one or both categories depending on the situation.

How Washington’s Community Property Laws Affect Property Division In Divorce

Before diving into the question of inheritance and divorce, it’s important to briefly explain how Washington distinguishes between community property and separate property. These classifications are what primarily influence the division of property during a divorce and what property a spouse may have a legal claim to.

Community Property

Community property generally refers to the property that either spouse acquired during marriage. Each spouse can manage and control the community property within a marriage within certain reasonable limitations. 

Some examples of community property may include:

  •   Income earned from jobs and other sources
  •   Real estate bought during the marriage (e.g., primary residence, vacation home, etc.)
  •   Ownership interests in businesses started or grown during the marriage
  •   Personal property and household furnishings
  •   Investment and retirement accounts
  •   Other property bought or grown using other marital assets

Separate Property

In contrast, separate property refers to the assets acquired before or outside of the marriage. The determining factor in classifying separate property is the date of acquiring the property and the date your marriage began. Separate property can include the same types of personal and real property that could equally be marital property depending on the circumstance. 

Note: Separate and community property can seem easy to distinguish, but the concept gets tricky. What if a spouse comes into the marriage with $30,000 in separate property and uses it to purchase a car during the marriage?  Is the car community property?  What if the spouse instead takes that $30,000 and puts it into a joint bank account with the other spouse?  Is it now community property?

Washington Generally Classifies Inherited Property As Separate Property

Inheritances are the assets and property interests that a person receives from family members or other persons as an heir – usually through the terms of a will or trust. For purposes of a divorce proceeding, courts in Washington view assets you receive through inheritance as separate property. This classification often applies regardless if you received the property during the marriage. Washington generally takes this position because it recognizes that inheritances are not acquired through a spouse’s efforts from marriage.

How Is An Inheritance Marital Property?

Despite the initial classification of inheritance as separate property, events can transpire during a marriage that converts it into marital property. The two most common methods of making inheritance separate property are through the commingling of funds or using community property to improve the inherited property.

Commingling An Inheritance With Marital Assets

A simple manner to lose the separate property status of inheritance is to commingle the inheritance with other marital property. This can make it difficult or even impossible to trace what is separate as opposed to community property. An example of this would be to transfer an inherited investment account to a jointly owned portfolio.

Improving Inherited Property With Community Property

The other method of converting the inherited property into community property is to use marital assets to improve its value. For example, you inherit an old vacation home that’s been in the family for decades but needs significant repairs. You and your spouse then use money from your joint bank account to pay contractors and buy necessary supplies. The source of the improvements was marital property, which can transform, at least in part, the status of the inherited vacation home.

For Help With Protecting Your Inheritance During Divorce

Inheritances can be an important source of financial security following a divorce. Our attorneys at Divorce Lawyers for Men have years of experience in helping clients protect their property interests when it comes to inheritances and property division during divorce.

Contact our office today for a consultation about inheritance and divorce and we’ll be happy to answer your questions.

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