Select Page

Maintaining a healthy and happy family or a clean family home often requires a lot of effort on the part of the members of that family. When one spouse has a particularly difficult or demanding career or if the family’s income with both parents working simply doesn’t justify outsourcing childcare or home maintenance to professionals, one spouse may decide to stay home and provide unpaid labor for the benefit of the entire family.

Whether a stay-at-home spouse raises the family’s children or maintains the home, cooks and cleans, their contributions matter to the family as a whole. If you have been a stay-at-home spouse for much of your marriage, divorce may seem particularly frightening, as you probably have limited potential for your own income.

Staying at home reduces your earning potential

Even if you have work experience or a degree, being out of the workforce for many years will impact how likely employers are to hire you and how much they are willing to pay you. The closer you are to retirement, the more you might worry about the ability to support yourself and whether you’ll have to work for the rest of your life.

Thankfully, given that Washington has community property laws for divorcing couples, you likely have a claim to some of the retirement funds or your spouse’s pension.

Community property laws make most income during marriage shared

Some couples choose to execute prenuptial agreements that make it clear that each spouse will retain their individual income earned during the marriage as separate property. Unless you have a document like this on record, the income and various assets you and your spouse acquired during marriage are all community property and therefore subject to division.

Your retirement funds and even a pension are part of that community property or marital estate, regardless of whose name is on the account. Depending on many factors in your family, the courts will have multiple ways in which to divide these assets.

The courts may order the division of the account or even alimony payments

Exactly how the courts handle retirement funds will depend on many factors that are unique to your family. The value of other assets, the total amount of household debt, custody of minor children and even the health of each spouse will influence how the courts choose to divide assets.

For retirement investment accounts such as 401(k)s, the courts can issue Qualified Domestic Relations Orders that instruct the plan administrator who invests these funds to split a specific percentage of the balance of the account into a new account in the name of the spouse.

Other times, the courts may adjust how they divide the family debts and other assets to reflect one spouse retaining a retirement account or pension. The courts can even order spousal support, also known as alimony, for the duration of one spouse’s pension benefits to ensure a fair split that allows a stay-at-home spouse to support themselves during retirement.