Other states have alimony, but in Washington State, we call spousal support or alimony “spousal maintenance.” Here is a quick overview of spousal maintenance in Washington State so that you can be prepared for that first meeting with your divorce attorney.
What is it? Spousal maintenance is a monthly payment by one spouse to another as agreed to by divorcing spouses or ordered by the court. Generally, spousal maintenance is awarded based upon one party’s need for support relative to the other spouse’s ability to pay, amongst other factors. See RCW 26.09.090: Maintenance orders for either spouse or either domestic partner—Factors. (wa.gov)
Will I be ordered to pay or receive spousal maintenance in my divorce? A spouse has the right to ask for spousal maintenance in a divorce. Whether a court will award spousal maintenance will be determined by a careful examination of the particular facts in your case. Does one spouse make significantly more than the other or have significant separate property? Did one spouse give up career opportunities to stay home and take care of the children? Do the assets that are being divided provide enough support for each spouse without the need for an additional monthly payment? Does one spouse need to return to school for training in order to find gainful employment that will allow them to support themselves and their children? Does a spouse have medical issues that prevent him or her from working? How old is each spouse and how much time is left in their respective careers? What was the standard of living during the marriage? All of these factors and more can be considered when determining whether spousal maintenance will be awarded.
How much and for how long? In Washington, there is no formula for setting spousal maintenance. It is based on the receiving spouse’s need for support and the paying spouse’s ability to pay support. There is a loose guideline that is often used by attorneys of one year of spousal maintenance for every three or four years of marriage. However, this is not the law and cannot be relied upon as precedent-setting. The Court has wide discretion in awarding spousal maintenance based on the unique facts and circumstances of your case.
The length of your marriage is an important factor. In 1982, King County Judge Robert Winsor wrote an article for the Washington State Bar News that is still often referenced today. Judge Winsor categorized marriages based on duration: short (five years or less), long (25 years or more) and mid-range (everything in between). Winsor asserted that in a short marriage, the goal is to seek to place the parties in the economic positions they were in at the inception of the marriage, with allowance for interest or inflation. Judge Winsor presumes that maintenance would not be paid in a short marriage except in extraordinary circumstances or for a very brief adjustment period. In a long-term marriage, he opined that the goal is to seek to place the parties in roughly equal financial positions for the rest of their lives if they both manage their work and assets reasonably. This could result in a long-term maintenance award. For mid-term marriages, you should do something in between. It follows, that it is the mid-term marriages where we see the broadest range of outcomes. Judge Winsor, “Guidelines for the Exercise of Judicial Discretion in Marriage Dissolutions,” Washington State Bar News, vol. 14, page 16 (Jan. 1982).
What if I lose my job? If the court orders you to pay spousal maintenance at trial, you can ask the court to modify the amount and duration based on circumstances such as loss of work. If you reached an agreed settlement, as happens in a majority of divorces, it depends on the terms of your agreement. Many spouses will agree to non-modifiable spousal maintenance in negotiations.
An experienced divorce attorney will be able to analyze the various factors of a spousal maintenance award in your specific case and guide you to a range of reasonable outcomes. It helps to stay flexible and look at the big picture when considering whether spousal maintenance is appropriate in your divorce.