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How do courts divide debts, like credit cards and student loans?

When facing divorce, many people feel overwhelmed by all the potential changes. After concerns about child custody and visitation, questions about financial changes, including the division of marital assets and debts, are typically the most pressing. The greater your overall level of assets, the more reason you may have for concern. After all, you've become acclimated to a certain standard of living during your marriage.

Will you end up with reduced income, as well as a significant share of your marital debts? Understanding how the family courts in Washington look at and distribute both debts and assets from a marriage can help you understand the likely financial impact of your divorce.

Washington applies community property laws to assets and debts

Every state has unique laws and statutes in place that govern how the courts should handle debts and assets during a divorce. Washington law makes it a community property state. In general, all assets and debts acquired during the marriage belong jointly to both spouses. For some people, this can be beneficial, especially if they did not work outside of the home for part or all of the marriage. The income earned during that period still belongs to both spouses, regardless of who brought home the paycheck.

However, the reverse situation is also true. Most debts acquired during the marriage will end up split by the courts as well. Credit card debts, medical bills (even if they are for treatment of one spouse) and even student loans could end up split between both spouses.

How do the courts divide assets and debts?

The Washington state family courts will consider a number of factors when determining what is a fair means of dividing community property. They will review information provided by the divorcing couple that outlines their assets and their debts from the marriage. They will also consider factors such as the length of the marriage, the contribution of each spouse, the custody situation for minor children, the current and likely future economic situation of each parent and more.

Once the courts have determined what is fair, they will take steps to divide the debts and assets from the marriage. In some cases, they may simply assign half of the assets and debts directly to each spouse. In other situations, the courts could instead assign varying assets and debts to either spouse without directly splitting individual accounts or assets.

Regardless of how the courts approach the process, you should expect to remain responsible for some of the debt you acquired during your marriage, as well as the debts your spouse generated. It's important to focus on the positive factors and not just the debts and frustration. Unless those debts are directly related to intentional dissipation (waste) of marital assets, you could find yourself responsible for repaying them.

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