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When a spouse's act creates a community liability, it is enforceable only against the community property and the acting spouse's separate property. If the obligation is for a family expense, however, it can be enforced against the separate property of one spouse even though the other spouse alone incurred the liability. Wash. Rev. Code § 26.16.205.The expenses of the family and the education of the children, including stepchildren, are chargeable upon the property of both husband and wife, or either of them, and they may be sued jointly or separately. § 26.16.205. Family expenses pursuant to § 26.16.205 are synonymous with a family's "necessaries," those items required for the sustenance, support, and ordinary requirements of a family. Rental of the family residence is a recognized family expense that subjects the spouses to both community and separate liability.
The tenant executed an extension of the lease with the landlord before marrying his former wife. The landlord responded to the tenant's notice to quit with certain charges and assigned its claim for them to the collection agency, which filed a complaint against the former wife in the district court. The former wife filed an answer denying any contractual relationship or duty to pay. The district court dismissed the complaint. The collection agency appealed, arguing that the district court incorrectly held that the lease was not a community obligation of the former wife and the tenant and that the former wife was not separately liable for breach.
Could the collection agency proceed against the former wife?
The court granted discretionary review because the landlord presented issues of public interest. The court reversed the contested judgment and remanded the case. The court decided that the extension was necessary to provide housing for the marital community. Therefore, the lease obligation was deemed incurred as a family expense. The court determined that, although the community was dissolved, its members' liabilities continued and the collection agency could proceed against the tenant and the former wife either individually or collectively pursuant to Wash. Rev. Code § 26.16.205.