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Washington Family Law: An Overview

Family matters like marriage, divorce and child custody can create strong emotions. To help keep things civil and fair, Washington’s family laws govern things like child support, alimony and spousal rights. Experienced family law attorneys can treat your case with the sensitivity it requires.

If you have a family law case in Seattle, Vancouver, Tacoma or elsewhere in Washington, LawInfo is your source for information and legal help. LawInfo’s Washington Family Law section includes legal overviews, summaries of state laws and other resources to help you make the right decisions for you and your family.

Washington Marriage Requirements

Washington’s family laws prohibit certain people from marrying for health and legal reasons. While the laws may not necessarily impede or punish these prohibited marriages, they won’t protect the marriage and the spouses’ rights to benefits. Some of the prohibited types of marriages may even be criminal under state or federal law, such as marriage between an adult and a minor.

To legally qualify for marriage in Washington, each party must:

  • Be 18 years of age or older. A party who is 17 years old or younger must obtain written consent from their parents or guardians. A party who is 16 years old or younger must obtain a written waiver signed by a Superior Court Judge from Juvenile Court.
  • Not be currently married to a third party.
  • Not be related to one another closer than second cousins.

Washington Marriage License

While you and your spouse are planning your wedding day, make sure to work into your plans an application for a Washington marriage license. The license represents the state government’s legal recognition of your marriage, which helps you qualify for things like family insurance and tax breaks.

To apply for a marriage license, a couple must either appear in-person at a county auditor’s office or request an application by mail from a county auditor, regardless of whether you’re a Washington resident or not. You may apply for the license in any county in Washington.

Once you receive your license, you must wait three days before getting married. After the waiting period is over, the license is valid for 60 days.

Washington Divorce Requirements

Unlike many states, Washington doesn’t require “fault” grounds for a divorce. As long as you or your spouse is a Washington resident, you may file for divorce if, after 90 days from the petition, the court agrees that the marriage is irretrievably broken.

A couple must both agree that the marriage is irretrievably broken beyond reconciliation. If one spouse denies that the marriage is irretrievably broken, the court may transfer the case to family court or order the couple to participate in marriage counseling.

Distribution of Community Property in Washington

When you and your spouse divorce in Washington, you may each end up receiving half of your shared property, income, and debts. Washington is considered a “community property” state, which means that all income received, debts incurred and property bought during your marriage are shared and, thus, distributed equally between you and your spouse.

A couple may come to an agreement on how they want the community property divided before going to court. However, the court ultimately makes the decision on how property is divided. The court’s decision is weighed against four factors:

  • What is considered community property and what share in it each spouse owns.
  • What is considered separate property and what share in it each spouse owns.
  • How long the marriage lasted.
  • Each spouse’s economic circumstances and the desirability of awarding the family home or living rights therein to the spouse with primary custody to the children.

Separate property includes gifts and inheritances given to one spouse during the marriage and property owned separately before the marriage. If the other spouse had any ownership claim to separate property, it may be considered by the court for distribution.

When Do I Need a Washington Family Law Attorney?

Whether you need a family law attorney depends on a number of factors specific to your case. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Few couples need a lawyer to get married but attorneys may be required if there’s a prenuptial agreement involved.

Individuals often benefit from hiring an attorney when dealing with divorce, child support, and especially child custody matters. Because emotions can run high during some divorces, hiring an attorney to negotiate and resolve difficult issues can be invaluable.

Many lawyers offer free initial consultations, so it may be worth your time to speak with an experienced Washington family law attorney if you have additional questions.

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