Alimony in Washington State

An overview of Washington State alimony laws and how judges determine spousal support.

Washington State

There are several essential things to know if you’re dealing with an alimony issue in Washington State.

Who is Entitled to Alimony in Washington?

The terms spousal maintenance and alimony are used interchangeably to describe support one spouse must pay the other during and after a divorce.

Washington spousal support is awarded based upon one party’s need for support and the other spouse’s ability to pay to maintain a standard of living similar to the marriage.

Each party’s ‘need’ and ‘ability’ is relative to the other spouse, and if these tests are met, Washington courts will then apply several factors to determine duration and amount.

Types of Alimony in Washington

Judges in Washington State can award the following types of spousal maintenance:

Temporary Support

One spouse commonly needs financial help from the other, while a divorce case moves through the legal system.  As a bridge to the final divorce decree, courts can award temporary support (also commonly known as pendente lite alimony) to ensure both spouses can meet financial obligations during this time.

Temporary maintenance is only available while the divorce is pending and ends when the judge finalizes the divorce.

Also, when it is unlikely that a court would award alimony in the final divorce order, it is possible that a court would order temporary alimony, as long as one party needed the money and the other party could pay.

Short-term Maintenance

Often, a party seeking maintenance can become financially independent but may need time and financial support to acquire sufficient education or job skills, leading to employment that will allow them to be self-supporting.  This is common when one spouse stayed at home to raise children or support the other spouse who is growing their career.

When ordering short-term support, judges will include an end date or specific event, such as graduating from college. Many courts will also permit a supported spouse to ask a court to extend or review the award before it expires.

Long-term Maintenance

Sometimes called permanent alimony, long-term maintenance is rare but available to spouses unable to become self-supporting.  It is generally reserved for longer marriages or where one spouse is unable to work due to a disability, advanced age, or if the supported spouse can’t acquire the skills necessary to find employment.

If you’ve been married a long time, alimony may serve to equalize your lifestyles for many years, if not permanently.

Temporary Undifferentiated Family Support

Many Washington state judges view child support and spousal maintenance as interchangeable.  In some instances, courts will award temporary ‘undifferentiated family support’ rather than separate amounts for temporary child support and temporary maintenance to the same person. Awarding an undifferentiated figure saves time at temporary order hearings.

Undifferentiated support can be nearly any amount the court deems fair, but it often divides the former family’s monthly income evenly. For example, a husband who makes $10,000 per month might pay $3,000 per month to a wife who earns $2,000 per month. This would result in each having $5,000 per month.

Parties can also choose to create an alimony agreement on their own.  This gives them more control over the process.  The agreement will still need to be reviewed and approved by a judge, but as long as the agreement is fair and just, the judge almost always approves the agreement.

Sometimes, couples may use a mediator to help them reach an agreement.  This third party remains neutral and may only help with alimony issues but often is used to help spouses reach an agreement on all parts of a divorce.

Mediators and spouses sometimes trade spousal support for other financial relief.  For example, the would-be payor might offer a disproportionate award for a maintenance reduction. These types of agreements are legally permissible except when they reduce child support. Child support is for the benefit of the children, and parents generally cannot trade it or bargain to reduce or eliminate it.

Read More:  How to File For Divorce in Washington

What Factors Are Used to Determine Alimony?

When initial tests of need and ability to pay are determined, judges will apply several statutory factors the come up with a fair and just award on a case-by-case basis.  In Washington, there is no formula for calculating alimony.

One of the primary factors is how long the couple was married.  Although judges have broad discretion for each case, they generally follow these parameters.

Short-Term Marriage (0-5 or 0-3 years of marriage): Maintenance of enough to help meet the lower-earning spouse’s basic everyday needs for a few months while they get financially situated.  Usually, the alimony payments end there or taper off suddenly and rarely extend beyond the entry of the divorce decree.  Support during the divorce process is often referred to as pendente lite alimony.

Medium-Term Marriage (5-25 years of marriage): Maintenance to the lesser-earning spouse for 20-33% of the length of the marriage. The initial monthly amount might be enough to equalize the parties’ economic positions, or it might be enough to meet basic needs, or something in-between. The type of alimony can also be used to allow a spouse to get additional education or training to create a more stable future income at a higher level.  The monthly amount usually tapers off.

Long-Term Marriage (over 25 years): In a long-term marriage, maintenance can be awarded to equalize the parties’ economic positions for many years, if not for life.  It can be awarded for life if a spouse is of advanced age, has an illness, or can’t otherwise support themselves.

Other factors the court considers are:

  • Expected future incomes
  • Each spouse’s age, physical and emotional health
  • Does the receiving spouse want to return to school, and how serious are they about pursuing more education
  • Community property awarded to each spouse
  • Separate property of each spouse

What is the impact of child support on spousal maintenance?

Washington courts usually first determine child support, then determine the additional amount of maintenance warranted, if any. Although child support is for the child, the funds also benefit the child’s parent to a large extent. Payment for the child’s expenses benefits everyone in the household.

Child support often effectively reduces maintenance dollar for dollar. This is especially true when the court attempts to equalize the parties’ financial positions. Many judges and commissioners will only award maintenance to the extent it leaves the recipient with half the former family income or less, including child support.

What happens when a spouse is purposely unemployed or underemployed as a way to avoid paying alimony?

‘Imputation’ means the court decides how much a spouse should earn based on job history, skills, current job market, and other factors. If a party does not work at their earning capacity, the court will usually ‘impute’ income at the amount they could earn. ‘Imputation’ means the court decides how much a spouse should make based on job history, skills, current job market, and other factors.  That amount will be used to determine how much alimony they should pay.

Read More:  101 Financial Pitfalls of Divorce

Modifying or Terminating Spousal Support in Washington

Divorce laws in Washington allow either spouse to request a modification of alimony when there is a substantial change in finances.  Several reasons can justify a modification, such as a job loss, illness, remarriage, onset of a disability, cohabitation, and other similar life events.

Support automatically terminates when the recipient remarries.  The parties can stipulate to support remaining in effect even after remarriage, but this must be specified in the divorce decree.  Maintenance also automatically terminates upon either party’s death.

No modification hearing is required when either of these takes place unless the parties have an enforceable written agreement in place to the contrary.

If you are a paying spouse, your financial obligations don’t automatically terminate when you remarry.  The extra burden of supporting your new spouse probably does not qualify as a basis to reduce support.  In fact, if your new spouse has income, it might be the basis for the other side to request more support.

A Washington state judge can modify maintenance obligations in the future.  Retroactive modifications are not allowed. The date of the petition for modification sets the limit on how far back the court’s powers extend in time. Retroactive modifications are not allowed.

Enforcing Washington Alimony Awards

Alimony not paid when it’s due is known as alimony arrears.  Alimony is a court order and can be enforced by a judge when the receiving spouse alerts the court.

In some cases, mediation may be able to solve the late payment issue.  In other instances, the non-paying spouse can be held in contempt of court.  They may be forced to attend a hearing to explain why they are behind in spousal support payments.  Based on the hearing, the judge can fine the non-payor, assign court costs, or sometimes put the person in jail.

Read More:  Washington State Child Custody Laws

Spousal Support and Taxes

Due to recent changes in Federal laws, the payer cannot deduct support payments under a divorce or separation instrument executed after 2018. These payments are also not included as taxable income for recipients.

The same is true of alimony paid under a divorce or separation instrument executed before 2019 and modified after 2018 if the modification expressly states that the alimony isn’t deductible to the payor spouse or included in the income of the recipient spouse.

Taxpayers who pay alimony under a divorce agreement executed before 2019 can deduct those payments from taxes when the following criteria are met:

  • The recipient must be a spouse or former spouse
  • There must be a written divorce or separation instrument
  • Alimony must be made with cash payments (such as checks and money orders)
  • Maintenance does not continue after the recipient dies
  • The parties must live apart, residing in different households
  • The parties must file separate tax returns (they cannot file a joint return and claim the alimony deduction)
  • The court-ordered payment of alimony cannot state that payments are not deductible

Washington State Alimony FAQs

Does Washington consider gender when awarding alimony?

No, alimony is based on need and ability to pay.  Either men or women can request alimony as part of the divorce process. Spousal support awards are gender neutral.

Can alimony be awarded when a couple has not been married?

Washington law only supports maintenance awards if the parties were married or registered as domestic partners.

The state does not have any specific provision for support awards, other than child support, where there has not been a marriage. However, Washington provides for a property division between some unmarried couples under the “Committed Intimate Relationship” (CIR) doctrine. The court would first need to find that a CIR existed. Generally, this means finding that the couple had engaged in a long-term, stable, marriage-like relationship.

Washington only recognizes other forms of marriage, including common law marriage, if the marriages properly took place under the laws where the parties were located at the time. Courts in Washington generally will recognize valid foreign marriages regardless how they occurred.

People who have had registered domestic partnerships should be aware that those automatically converted to marriages after the law on same-gender marriages changed. If it converted to marriage, that would also open the door to arguments for an alimony award.

Is marital misconduct a factor in determining alimony?

Washington is a ‘no-fault’ divorce state, and this prohibits courts from considering a spouse’s misconduct as part of alimony considerations. This means that courts cannot punish a spouse for causing a divorce due to adultery, spousal abandonment, abuse, or other forms of bad behavior.

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