How Do Washington Courts Determine Maintenance?
What Is “Maintenance” and Who Should Get It?
Maintenance is what some people commonly know as “alimony” or “spousal support.” It is a tool designed to provide a spouse who has spent an amount of time out of the workforce maintaining the family by taking care of children and/or the home in support of the family. Either spouse may receive maintenance in a divorce or legal separation.
How Much and How Long Is Maintenance?
Receiving maintenance is not a right and there is no magic formula to determine how much and for how long. Every family is unique, so the Courts have wide discretion to award maintenance as they deem “just” after evaluating the relevant factors that apply to the parties.
That said, the purpose of maintenance is to provide the financially unequal spouse with income until he or she can become self-supporting. Although not an exclusive list, Washington law sets out some basic factors for the Court to consider:
#1: The financial resources available to the person asking for the maintenance including the value of separate and community property. This could include who gets the real property and retirement accounts (or portions of) from the divorce, income, and child support payments which include an amount for a person as custodian (very rare).
#2: The time it will take if the person asking for maintenance needs to obtain additional education, skills or training in order to get a job to support themselves. A fast-food job to pay for the bare necessities is not enough. The goal is a meaningful career or job that will place that spouse at or about the level of their previous standard of living while in the relationship.
#3: The couple’s standard of living prior to divorce. This element is somewhat intertwined with the length of the relationship (#4 below). The longer the marriage the more each party has contributed jointly to the standard of living created. The maintenance awarded should equalize the spouses until the maintenance-seeking spouse can independently support that standard of living.
#4: The length of marriage. Especially in a “homemaker” and “breadwinner” relationship, the longer the marriage the more one person’s earning capacity has decreased from not being in the workforce while the other spouse’s increases. Duration of a marriage is general categorized as short term (5 years or less), long term (25 years or more), and everything in between as intermediate term. Short term marriage will usually warrant little to no amount of maintenance for very short periods of time. Long term marriages may result in the Court placing the parties in a “roughly equal” financial position for the rest of their lives, but the Court must still take into consideration all of the statutory conditions of 1 through 6 of this article. Washington courts have stressed that one spouse should not be given perpetual lien from other spouse’s future income so lifetime awards require very unusual circumstances. The intermediate marriage category is where most people wind up divorcing and the Courts rely heavily on factors 1 through 6 as applied to each unique situation.
#5: The financial obligations, age, physical and emotional state of the person asking for maintenance. Financial need refers to the needs and standard of living of the spouse seeking maintenance which is discussed above. Age and health goes to the maintenance-seeking spouse’s ability to stand on their own two feet. Even though a marriage may last 20 years or more, if the seeking spouse is relatively young and in good health, the Court may limit the amount and duration of the maintenance, or even deny maintenance if it is deemed unneeded. On the other hand, if the spouse is in poor physical or mental health, disabled or deemed unemployable, they may have an even greater need for maintenance and for a longer duration.
Special problems arise in this category when the seeking spouse contracts a chronic illness that may not be currently physical disabling, but most likely will be in the future such as Multiple Sclerosis, HIV, Parkinson’s Disease, Cancer, etc. The same consideration is given to mental illness such as Schizophrenia and Bi-polar Disorder which may be partially controlled by medication but still keep the spouse from being self-supporting and gainfully employed.
#6: The ability of the person paying the maintenance to support themselves and pay their own bills while paying the maintenance. The Court is not going to make someone pay maintenance when doing so would compromise their ability to take care of themselves. If it did, this would bog the courts down with continuous motions to enforce the maintenance order that spouse was unable to pay. The Court will examine what resources are available to the paying spouse including current, future and imputed income as well as other assets that could not be divided in the divorce decree such as a railroad retirement and military pension.
Requesting maintenance to be approved by the Court can be tricky and must be done in a timely manner. Waiting until you get to court or are filing your final papers is just too late. In our collaborative practice we help our clients agree to the amount of maintenance and how long the maintenance should be paid and received. We craft separation agreements that detail the division of property, payment of debts and a maintenance schedule. That way when the final orders are presented to the judge, they are signed without the pain of a long and drawn-out trial. If you have questions about maintenance, click to contact our office in Seattle, Tacoma, or Olympia.