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Marriage in Washington State

• Date: Aug 13, 2008 • Source: http://www.wsba.org


If you are newly wed or plan to marry soon, you have probably thought about the many ways this new relationship will affect your life. But changing needs and lifestyles are altering traditional concepts of marriage, and you may not be aware of all the obligations created by a marital agreement. Along with many personal decisions and responsibilities, marriage involves important legal considerations, many of which are explained in this pamphlet.

When you sign a marriage certificate, for example, you are signing a legal and binding contract. Specific conditions must be met and, like other contracts, a marriage creates certain rights and duties for each partner. Because the state is a party to the contract, court approval is required to change or end a marriage.

Requirements

To be legally married in Washington, you must conform to certain eligibility and application requirements and have a valid marriage license.

The legal age for both male and female applicants is 18 years. If younger than 18, permission of one's father, mother or guardian is required; applicants under the age of 17 must also have the consent of the Superior Court. If either party is under the age of majority (18 years) when marrying, he or she voluntarily gives up the parent's obligation for his or her support; in legal terminology, this is called "emancipation."

Persons closer in relationship than second cousins may not marry. Medical examinations, blood tests or identification papers are not required when applying for a license, nor is proof of divorce. However, a dissolution action must be final (and the Decree signed by a judge) and filed before applying for a marriage license.

Application for a license must be made to the county auditor at least three days (not including the day of application) before the license may be used. (For example, if applying on a Thursday, the first valid day is Sunday.) Both parties must sign the application; a witness is no longer required when making application. The county auditor, at his or her discretion, may issue the marriage license at the time of application, or may hold it until it becomes valid. The valid license may be used anywhere in the state of Washington.

A license is void if a marriage is not solemnized within 60 days after obtaining a license. Justices of the Supreme Court and superior courts, judges and commissioners, judges of the court of appeals, or judges of any court of limited jurisdiction may conduct the ceremony; also authorized are any regularly licensed or ordained minister or priest of any church or religious denomination, and justices of the peace. In addition to the person officiating, two witnesses must be present during the ceremony.

Obligations

Both parties are responsible for the financial support of the children of the marriage. If a marriage breaks up, the child support statute now takes into account the income of both parents when establishing child support.

In Washington, husband and wife are a "marital community" and, once married, the earnings of each are "community property." Under this system, all property acquired from earnings during marriage (such as real estate, automobiles or household goods) belongs equally to husband and wife, even when only one is employed.

Similarly, both husband and wife are personally liable for certain types of family expenses, even if both did not agree to the particular obligation.

Other restrictions also apply under our community property system. For example, neither a husband nor a wife may bequeath by will more than one-half the community assets. Moreover, neither may give community property without the consent of the other. Finally, neither may sell, convey or encumber real property (land) without both parties signing appropriate documents.

Under the law, either party may purchase assets or secure financing for the purchase of certain assets without the other party's consent if the security is the asset being purchased.

Review of Documents

A newly married couple should review and make appropriate changes in all insurance policies, stocks, bonds and other property documents. You may wish to make your spouse the new beneficiary or joint owner.

By law, your new spouse may have an interest in the life-insurance policies you owned prior to your marriage. Your new spouse's interest may conflict with your named beneficiaries and may override them in whole or in part. You should consult an attorney if you have any concerns.

You also may want to change your bank accounts to "joint accounts" to provide access by both husband and wife. Most joint accounts are with "right of survivorship." This means that when one spouse dies, the survivor receives the entire account, less the funds used to pay decedent's debts, without the necessity of probate.

If you have separate funds from before this marriage, depositing those funds in a joint account with your new spouse may change the funds from separate property to community property.

If the marriage involves a change in name and/or address, various offices should be notified, including motor vehicle and licensing departments, Social Security and post offices, voter-registration officials, employers and creditors. A husband should notify the Selective Service Board of his new status.

Recordkeeping

Keep records of your financial affairs. Your receipts, canceled checks and credit charge slips are legal proof of expenditures that will be useful at income tax time and for other reference.

Valuable documents, such as insurance policies, birth and marriage certificates, deeds, contracts, bonds or stock certificates, should be stored in a safe-deposit box at a bank or at some other protected, but accessible, location.

If you have separate property at the time of your marriage and you wish to maintain its separate nature, you must keep all documents relating to that asset. This will help you in your ability to trace an asset to its separate origin.

Name Change

Although wives have traditionally assumed the husband's name, this practice is a social custom, not a legal requirement.

Whether a woman plans to retain her last name or change it, she should sign the marriage license and related documents in her present legal name (the name she used up until this marriage).

Even if she does not plan to take her husband's name, she may want to notify certain governmental or financial agencies of her change in marital status.

A name change may be made by either an informal method (such as with an "Affidavit of Name Change") or by a formal, court-ordered process. Notification of the change should be made to pertinent agencies or authorities. Husbands and wives who wish to assume a combined or hyphenated last name may want to consult a lawyer to determine the procedure best suited to their needs and situation.

To avoid legal confusion, a person should sign his or her name in one consistent way on all documents, forms and correspondence.

Property Ownership

Perhaps each of you owned property before your marriage, such as stocks, bonds or other property either purchased with separate funds, inherited or given to you. This is not community property. Also, any inheritance received after marriage is not community property. Such "separate" property remains yours, and yours alone, as long as it is kept separate from the community property. Husbands and wives may, with appropriate documents, change separate property into community property. However, in a divorce the court has broad powers to award both community and separate property to either spouse.

A spouse seeking to maintain the "separate" nature of his/her property should consult an attorney to prevent unintended "community" interest in his/her separate property.

Wills and Estate Planning

Each of you should have a will that reflects your wishes and needs. Your wills also may take into account and provide for future children. Once drafted, a will should be reviewed periodically to meet changing conditions. By preparing a will, you decide how your property is to be distributed when you die, not the state.

New wills are important if you intend to have separate property pass to your children from a prior marriage. If you have no will or a will that pre-dates your marriage, the new spouse may inherit a portion or all of your separate estate and all of your interest in community property.

(Estate-planning topics are discussed in more detail in the following WSBA pamphlets: Wills, Probate, and Revocable Living Trusts.)

State laws also authorize the use of a community-property agreement to transfer community property to a surviving spouse when one marriage partner dies.

Community-property agreements should be reviewed carefully, as some agreements transfer separate property into community property immediately upon signing, rather than upon the death of the first spouse. A lawyer can help determine which type of agreement is appropriate to your situation, and if it may be utilized without risking unusual complications and expenses.

Pre-marriage contract

The use of pre-marriage contracts (or what the law calls "prenuptial" or "antenuptial" agreements) is increasing, although the idea has existed for many years. These contracts, often used when there are children of prior marriages, usually specify ownership rights and obligations and provide for division of property in the event of separation or death.

A well thought-out and carefully drawn pre-marriage contract can provide a framework for protection and settlement if a relationship ends, but it can never guarantee freedom from litigation.

A prenuptial agreement may be beneficial from a legal standpoint to maintain the separate nature of assets, to provide for previous children, or to prevent the spousal homestead award in probate. The Supreme Court recently set forth strict requirements to create a valid prenuptial agreement. A lawyer should be consulted to determine if it is appropriate to your situation and to make sure it is properly drafted and executed.

Adoption

Most counties require a marriage of at least a year sometimes two years before approving a stepparent adoption. Check local court rules in your county.

Service of an Attorney

Up to this time, you may have had no occasion to consult an attorney. Your marriage changes your status in many ways. When either spouse has children from a prior marriage, obligations for past and future family support can be complex. Making use of an attorney's advice when you contemplate marriage (and any other legal agreement) may help you avoid future problems or unpleasant disputes.