Alimony/Spousal Support in Washington State
Washington Courts generally analyze spousal maintenance (more commonly known as “alimony” or “spousal support”) under three different frameworks, based on the length of marriage.
Alimony in Short-Term Marriages (less than 5 years) in Washington State
For marriages of less than five years, courts generally try to put the parties back in the financial positions they were in prior to marriage. Under this approach, the court is, in effect, pursuing a remedy akin to rescission, in which both parties are put back in the financial position they were in prior to the marriage. Even in cases where one party clearly needs alimony/spousal support and the other party has the ability to pay, if both parties are healthy and able to work, the court would be unlikely to award any alimony after a marriage of only a couple years.
Temporary Alimony/Spousal Support
During the divorce process, the parties still have a legal duty to support one another. So while it is unlikely that a court would award alimony in the final divorce order, it is quite probable that a court would order temporary alimony pending entry of the final divorce order, as long as one party needed the money and the other party had the ability to pay. Because it can easily take up to a year to get divorced in Washington, this results in one party receiving temporary spousal support for about a year even when it is clear to all involved that no court would ever order spousal support as part of a final order.
Because short term marriages are often fairly straightforward (assuming there are no children of the marriage), it should generally be possible to get the parties divorced in three to six months. However, if one of the parties is receiving indefinite temporary alimony with little chance of being awarded alimony in a final divorce order, they can become financially incentivized to draw the process out. In such cases, the party paying alimony is well advised to actively move the divorce forward and ensure that the case is ready to finalize. Failure to do so will invite motions to continue the case which result in a prolonged period of temporary spousal support.
Once the case is ready to finalize, the parties may sit down with attorneys and a mediator to try and settle the case. However, because the trial is usually several months away, the party receiving spousal support remains incentivized to not settle until the last minute, thereby securing more temporary alimony. The problem is that the financial incentive for the party receiving spousal support tends to push settlement back to the eve of trial. This can create a lot of unnecessary stress for both parties and it increases attorney fees as both sides end up having to prepare for trial.
Resolving the Issues Created by Temporary Alimony
A far better solution in these types of cases is for the person paying alimony to simply “buy-out” the remaining months of temporary alimony between the desired settlement date and the date of trial. The temporary spousal support ends up being paid either way, but with the buy-out, at least the party paying temporary spousal support can avoid ongoing attorney fees – and both parties can avoid the stress of pre-trial preparations.
Alimony in Long-Term Marriages (over 25 years)
For marriages of 25 years or longer, courts usually try to put the parties in an equal financial position for the remainder of their lives or at least until both parties retire. The idea is that after 25 years of marriage, the parties should be recognized as financially equal partners – and that their financial positions after the divorce should reflect that fact.
It is common in a long term marriage for property to be divided 50/50 and for incomes to be equalized through an alimony award until both parties are in retirement.
Alimony in Medium-Term Marriages (5–25 years)
For marriages of 5-25 years, there is far less certainty regarding alimony awards and judicial officers routinely exercise their discretion in ways that are inconsistent with one another. This is unfortunate because this lack of consistency tends to lengthen litigation and increase the likelihood of a contested trial. That said, there are some common guidelines that courts and attorneys use when evaluating spousal support awards for medium-term marriages.
As a general rule of thumb, courts in Washington State award one year of alimony for every three or four years of marriage. There is no statute or case law explicitly stating this formula, but it is an oft mentioned rule and generally what courts can be expected to do.
Spousal Support in Washington State: Need vs. Ability to Pay
When determining the amount of alimony on marriages of 5–25 years, courts use what is often characterized as the “need vs. ability to pay” analysis embodied in the following statutory factors:
- The financial resources of the party seeking alimony, including separate or community property apportioned to him or her, and his or her ability to meet his or her needs independently, including the extent to which a provision for the support of a child living with a party includes a sum for that party;
- The time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking spousal support to find employment appropriate to his or her skill, interest, style of life, and other attendant circumstances;
- The standard of living established during the marriage;
- The age, physical and emotional condition, and financial obligations of the spouse seeking alimony; and
- The ability of the spouse from whom alimony is sought to meet his or her needs and financial obligations while meeting those of the spouse seeking alimony.
In essence, the court first looks at the economic need of the party seeking spousal support. The court measures this need by comparing the monthly income of the person seeking alimony with their monthly expenses. The shortfall between a party’s income and their expenses is that party’s economic need.
Next, the court determines whether the other party has the ability to pay alimony while also meeting their own economic obligations. Using the same monthly income and expense approach, the court determines whether the person being asked to pay alimony can afford to do so and in what amount. For marriages of 5–25 years, the court’s goal is to provide the economically disadvantaged spouse with time to financially adjust to their new lifestyle as well as to provide time and resources to re-enter the workforce. This is often characterized as “transitional” or “rehabilitative” spousal support.
Making an Argument for Alimony in Washington State
In these cases, it is incumbent on the party seeking alimony to establish a credible narrative that supports their request. If you have been out of the workforce for several years and need time to re-enter your field, then you should speak with a career advisor and obtain some guidance on how long it will take to do that. You should also take steps to follow through with their advice. If the career advisor provides guidance on how to put your resume together and which organizations you should apply to, then you should take reasonable steps to do those things prior to settlement talks or trial. Failure to do so severely undermines your credibility.
Similarly, if your argument for spousal support includes returning to school for further education, then you should obtain information about the cost and time needed to complete the coursework/diploma/degree. And you should take reasonable steps to pursue that goal, such as applying to the program. Failure to do these things will severely undermine your argument for alimony at settlement or trial.
Opposing a Spousal Support Award in Washington State
If you are opposing a spousal support award, then you should likewise act in a way that maintains your credibility with the court and with the other party. For instance, it is probably not a good idea to buy a new luxury car in the middle of your divorce while simultaneously pleading poverty. I know this sounds obvious – but based on the conduct of many litigants, it appears this fact is not readily apparent to a substantial portion of the population.
When it comes to spousal support claims, the best strategy for both parties is to take a reasonable position, communicate the basis for the position to the other side and the court, and to then act in conformity with the position.
Alimony/Spousal Support in Seattle, Washington
If you think that spousal support/alimony will be an issue in your divorce, the attorneys at S.L. Pitts have decades of experience successfully resolving alimony disputes in Seattle, Washington and Los Angeles, California. No matter which side of the equation you are on, our lawyers listen carefully to your side of the story, offer advice on what would be the likely outcome of going to court, and suggest workable solutions to your spousal support dispute. Contact us to book an appointment with one of our knowledgeable Seattle, Washington divorce attorneys to avoid ending up with an unreasonable – and unworkable – alimony award.