The state of Washington considers retirement benefits earned during the marriage to be community property, and owned equally by both spouses, but defining those benefits can be very difficult. Protection of, and division of, retirement benefits is one of the most heated and contested issues in divorce. The high wage earner argues they earned the money, and that it is their retirement. The financially weaker spouse argues that they maintained the home, or forfeited their potential career, to support the high wage earning spouse, and that the retirement benefits are community property to be shared. The state of Washington considers retirement benefits earned during the marriage to be community property, and owned equally by both spouses, but defining those benefits can be very difficult.
Defining Retirement AccountsA major difficulty in apportioning retirement is to establish the current dollar value of the benefit. There are numerous types of retirement systems and programs. Some are employer based. Some are self-funded. Some are a combination. Some can be divided in cash accounts during the divorce. Some programs cannot be accessed and divided until retirement age. Each plan brings with it different problems in establishing an actual dollar value and a reasonable approach to division. Most high income earners will need professional help to properly value their retirement benefits.
Was the Benefit Earned During Marriage?Another difficulty can be in determining when the benefit was earned, and what portion has vested during marriage. It is often not clear cut and requires investigation by experienced experts.
Even though retirement benefits earned during marriage are community property that does not mean that the court will divide the benefits equally. The benefits are another asset on the table to be considered in the overall property and debt division.