Understanding Spousal Support in Washington with the Help of a Seattle Alimony Attorney

Alimony is the commonly known term for what is generally referred to in Washington as maintenance or spousal support. Under any name, it is money paid by one divorced spouse, generally out of their income, to the other to supplement their income. Talk to a Seattle alimony attorney at Seattle Divorce Services if you have specific questions or concerns.

Our Seattle Alimony Attorney Explains the Factors In Awarding Spousal Maintenance

The factors for the court to consider when awarding maintenance are set forth in RCW 26.09.090. These are often generally referred to as:

  • need and ability to pay
  • length of marriage
  • standard of living, and
  • the time needed to acquire suitable employment.

Our Seattle alimony law firm is often asked if the bad actions of a spouse will increase spousal support. Note that marital fault is NOT among the standards. Thus one party having had affairs or having been abusive is not relevant to alimony issues.

There are really two aspects of spousal maintenance that a court has to decide, one is the amount and the other is the period of time. Some of the factors go more to amount, while others go more to how long it should be paid.

What if I Can’t Afford to Pay Alimony?

Need and ability to pay looks both at what need the lower-income spouse has, and what ability to pay alimony the higher-income spouse has. Need is a flexible standard that might look as well at the living standard of the parties during the marriage. Thus “need” might be higher for a wealthier couple and lower for a poorer couple. On the other hand, if the higher-earning spouse also does not make very much, then there might not be enough to go around and so no or little alimony is ordered despite the need for it. Because both need and ability to pay are difficult to quantify, you should discuss your specific circumstances with a Seattle alimony attorney.

Length Of Marriage Affecting Period of Spousal Maintenance

In terms of how long the spousal maintenance should be paid, there was an article written many years ago by Judge Robert Winsor that laid out three categories of marriages for purposes of spousal maintenance:

  • Short-term marriages (up to 5 years)
  • Medium-length marriages (5-25 years)
  • Long marriages (over 25 years)

In general, in short-term marriages, the financial circumstances of the parties are thought to not be greatly affected by the marriage. Both parties generally have whatever money-making abilities they came into the marriage with. Thus in short-term marriages, spousal maintenance would generally be of short duration, i.e. just long enough to allow a non-working spouse to find work.

Spousal support in long-term marriages would generally be for a long period, typically until death. Sometimes maintenance would be in a declining amount over time to allow for the less well-off spouse to start to earn an income but anticipate that their income capacity would never match the other spouse.

Medium-length marriages would generally be treated as requiring a longer period of maintenance than a short-term marriage, but not as long as a long-term marriage. In a medium-length marriage, there is anticipated to be a long working life still ahead that will allow a spouse to take more responsibility for their future economic well-being. Depending on the actual length of the marriage, the analysis might slide more towards either the short or long-term way of thinking about the marriage and resulting spousal support obligations.

Time Needed To Find Employment

As a Seattle alimony attorney, I remember when some decades ago the courts tended to focus more on what it would take to get a spouse to the point of being self-supporting. This was referred to as the rehabilitative approach. The idea was to determine how much alimony, and for how long, was needed to allow a spouse to support themself while preparing to become self-supporting. Under this theory, the spousal support amount might be just enough to get by, and the period may be just long enough to obtain training and find work. Interestingly, though, I have seen this line of thinking referenced in a published judicial opinion as recently as 2013.

Other Calculations Your Seattle Alimony Lawyer Will Consider

However, over time Seattle alimony attorneys have seen the rehabilitative approach start to take a back seat to other methods that focused both on need and ability to pay and the overall goal of fair and equitable results. A second approach that has been used was compensatory spousal support. Under this approach, alimony would go beyond simply helping the spouse to become self-supporting and also seek to compensate a spouse for lost income potential where the spouse has played a role serving the marital community in other ways, such as managing the home while the other spouse worked. In practice, this was cumbersome to quantify, and I found courts leaning more in the direction of a third approach, income equalization.

This third method of calculating spousal support stated that alimony was “a flexible tool for equalizing the living standards of the parties for an appropriate period of time.” This method tended to look less at compensating lost opportunities and more at the standard of living. Generally, this simply came down to equalize the incomes of the parties, which was much easier to calculate. To a degree, the equalization method is also a way of addressing the need and ability to pay standards. If the incomes are equalized, then the need and ability to pay are equalized as well. It should also be noted that the standard used by the court for looking at incomes is how much it finds that the person can reasonably make, so choosing not to work is not helpful.

However, in more recent years, when determining spousal maintenance awards I have seen the courts often back off of full equalization, and often award less spousal support. This is probably based on the courts using a mixture of the three different approaches outlined above, considering not just what it would take to equalize incomes, but also the ability to become self-supporting as well as the need or lack thereof for compensation for lost opportunities.

Property Division is Considered When Calculating Alimony

Another issue to discuss with your Seattle alimony attorney is the connection between spousal maintenance awards and property division. Courts often divide the property and liabilities of the parties unequally. This is intended to address some of the same issues as alimony, namely the need to send both parties into the future in as equal a position as possible. If one party has much more ability to earn a high income or has significant separate property, then the court may award more of the community property to the disadvantaged spouse. However, to the extent that this is addressing some of the same issues as spousal support, you will often see a court awarding less spousal support where there is more property awarded, or giving less property in exchange for awarding more alimony.

Recent Tax Changes Affecting Spousal Support

One interesting change for you to review with your Seattle alimony attorney with regard to negotiating spousal maintenance is the income tax change made by the federal government in the last year. It used to be that alimony was a deduction to the payor and taxable instead to the receiving spouse. That has now been changed, and the money is now taxed to the paying spouse, presumably because they presumably have the higher income and so will be taxed at a higher rate. This can make it a bit more difficult to convince the paying spouse to pay a reasonable amount of maintenance, as they tend to feel like they are getting hit two ways.

A Seattle Alimony Attorney Can Help You Modify Your Spousal Support Payments

Down the road, you may need to talk to your Seattle alimony attorney about modifying alimony, whether you are paying or receiving. Maybe you lost your job, or your health has changed, or your ex-spouse’s income has changed considerably.

Spousal support is modifiable, but not easily so. Unlike child support which is expected to be modified every few years to update the calculations, spousal maintenance is expected to be fixed at the time of the divorce based on the current circumstances. In order to modify the support, either in amount or length of time it will be paid, you have to show that there has been a substantial change of circumstances from what was expected at the time of the divorce.

Moreover, a couple can agree in their divorce settlement that the spousal support is non-modifiable even if there is a substantial change of circumstances. While it means that alimony can’t be increased down the road, it also means it cannot be decreased even where it might be needed to do so. You should discuss with your Seattle alimony attorney whether you should have such a provision in your financial settlement.

Finally, unless the orders specify differently, alimony ends upon either the remarriage or death of the receiving party.  Some ex-spouses avoid ending spousal support payments simply by living together without remarrying.

Washington Alimony FAQs

How Long Is Alimony in Washington?

In Washington, a really rough rule of thumb that some divorce attorneys use to estimate alimony is one year of alimony for every four years of marriage. To my knowledge, this is not written down anywhere but just seems like an average of the results we have seen over the years. In any particular case, the result can be quite different.

Several factors are considered when deciding how long to award alimony. These include:

  • Length of the marriage
  • Amount of the support
  • Need of the person receiving the support
  • Ability to pay of the person paying the support
  • The property distribution

As a general rule, the longer the marriage the longer the length of support. Part of the thinking behind this is that the longer the marriage, the more joint decisions made during the marriage contribute to the current need for alimony.

The amount of support can also be a factor to the extent that in some cases a court might award a smaller amount for a longer period of time or a larger amount for a shorter period of time.

Need and ability to pay are not questions with easy answers. Make sure you talk to a Seattle alimony law firm about how these might work out given your unique circumstances.

Need in part may look at the person’s potential for becoming self-supporting. This might ask questions like whether a period of school or training is needed, how long it may take to find reasonable work, or how long it may take to advance in a career.

For long-term or permanent alimony to be awarded, generally, there would not a reasonable expectation of the spouse ever being able to earn an income, such as where there is a health issue or disability that would preclude employment.

The expected ability to pay may also change over time, so that could affect the length of the alimony. For example, if the paying spouse is expected to retire at a particular point, then they may lose the ability to pay support after that date, which may need to be calculated into the length of the support.

How Much Spousal Maintenance Will Your Seattle Alimony Law Firm Get for Me?

In Washington, there is no specific calculation for determining the amount of alimony the court should award. Again, the court looks instead at a variety of factors including need and ability to pay.

On the upper end, one approach we have seen is for the court to simply equalize the total income available to both parties. So if one spouse can make $10,000 per month and the other spouse can make $4000 per month, then you could see an award of $3000 per month to leave each party with a total of $7000 per month total income.

Another approach is to look at a “reasonable” budget for the spouse needing support and award enough to get them to that point (without leaving the paying spouse with less). So if we had the two spouses again making $10,000 and $4,000, maybe the court would determine that the receiving spouse is falling short of meeting expenses by $2000, and so award alimony of $2000 per month.

Another consideration is looking at the degree to which one spouse has sacrificed earning potential to serve community purposes, such as maintaining the home to support the career of the higher-earning spouse.

Often the final result is some combination of the above approaches, as well as consideration of other factors such as the length of the marriage. Talk to a Seattle alimony law firm about what factors might be most important in your situation.

Will I Be Expected To Get a Job If I Have Not Worked Outside the Home During the Marriage?

Once the marriage ends, you are expected to do what you can to support yourself. The purpose of alimony is really to make up the difference between what you can reasonably do for yourself and what you need to meet your reasonable expenses.

It may well be that you will need higher support while going back to school to train for a career that will help you become more self-supporting.

Should I Expect To Be Able To Maintain the Standard Of Living We Had During the Marriage?

While there might be exceptional circumstances, the short answer is no. The reason is that it generally takes more money to support two households than one. At most the court might equalize the living standards of both parties, but that would probably mean both living at a standard below what they enjoyed when together.

Can I Get Palimony?

Palimony basically refers to alimony for unmarried partners. In Washington, we do not have any law that provides for palimony. Even when the court finds the existence of a Committed Intimate Relationship, which allows the court to apply community principles to divide property and debt between the partners, there is no provision for palimony.

Possibly the only option circumstance when palimony might be awarded in Washington is where the parties have a cohabitation contract that specifically provides for it.

What Happens If I Remarry?

In some cases, alimony may terminate automatically upon remarriage.

In any event, if there is a new marriage or a cohabitation relationship, the degree to which the new partner helps meet financial needs might be taken into account in any action that is filed to modify alimony.

Call Seattle Divorce Services Today To Discuss Support with An Experienced Seattle Alimony Attorney

If you are concerned about alimony, discuss your spousal support issues with a Seattle alimony attorney. To schedule an appointment, we can be reached through the contact form, or you can call us at 206-784-3049.