May 2011 Bar Bulletin
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May 2011 Bar Bulletin

Split Decision: Is a Divorce the First Course?

By Kim Schnuelle and Lisa Dufour


A potential client comes to you in tears. Four years ago she got married in New Zealand during a whirlwind vacation with her new boyfriend, Stan. Once they returned to Seattle, however, they quickly realized their deep incompatibility and separated with much acrimony.

She thought he went to Memphis and started a country music career. Since the day he left, however, she has done very well for herself financially. She recently purchased a waterfront home on Lake Sam­mam­ish and, through several shrewd investments last year, has amassed a half-million-dollar stock portfolio.

Two days ago, she received an email from Stan reminding her that they never divorced and asking for half of her net worth as "Washington is a community property state." She is distraught and in your office asking you what she can do to protect her assets.

At divorce, the determination of when a marriage begins and ends can have dramatic effects on the distribution of a couple's property. In Washington, community property law is triggered during a valid marriage and ends on the date the parties begin living "separate and apart."

To best serve your potential client, and before immediately filing her divorce, you need to assess the following: 1) whether her marriage was valid to begin with; 2) whether it is possible to annul the marriage; and 3) whether the couple's physical separation already ended any community claim to property accumulated after the separation.

Is the Marriage Valid at All?

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