Breaking Down Financial Support for Married and Unmarried Couples
We often are asked about the support rights of both married and unmarried couples in Washington. Alimony is spousal support paid by one (ex)spouse to the other after divorce. Palimony refers to support from one partner to another after the end of the relationship, similar to alimony in a divorce.
In Washington spousal support is typically awarded to help balance the economic circumstances of the parties going forward. In determining both how much to award and for how long, a number of factors are looked at, including:
- expected future incomes
- length of the marriage
- health of the parties
- community property awarded to each
- separate property of each
Consideration of future incomes relates primarily to the question of the amount of support. Alimony may be awarded in an amount that would equalize the incomes of the parties for a period of time, or it may be less. This might include looking at whether training may be needed to increase income, the degree to which employment opportunities have been foregone in order to benefit the couple as a whole (the traditional model of one spouse taking care of the home while the other focuses on income generation), or the degree to which employment opportunities have been foregone for other reasons. As a general rule, decisions by one party during the marriage are considered to be the decisions of the couple.
On the other hand, length of the marriage relates more to the question of the length of support. In general, the longer the marriage, the longer the period of alimony. In a short marriage, the focus may be primarily on a short period of alimony to allow a non-working spouse time to find work and become self supporting. In a very long term marriage there may no longer be realistic opportunities to find significant employment, thus necessitating long term or even permanent alimony.
Tied to this are issues related to the health of the parties. For instance, if due to health or disability issues one party is unable to work full time, or even work at all, this will not only impact their own income potential, but also the length of time they may to receive alimony.
And of course the property, separate of community, that each party is walking away from the marriage with impacts the need for alimony, or the ability to pay it. For instance, if one party has significant separate property, the court might be inclined to award more spousal support to the other party by way of achieving some balancing. On the other hand, a court may choose to award more community property (or even separate property of the other spouse) to the lower earning spouse as another way of balancing economic circumstances, which in turn may lessen the alimony award in the case.
Does Washington Consider Gender When Determining Spousal Support?
People sometimes believe that spousal support awards are gender based, that support is paid by men to women. But in fact, the law in Washington is gender neutral with regard to spousal support. On the other hand, support has more often been paid to the wife in a divorce because more often the wife has been the lower earner. The reasons for this range from unequal pay standards to social constructs about the relative roles of wives and husbands in marriages. As these factors lessen, so too should the gender differences in alimony awards. However, there is still also the possibility that a given judge may still be influenced by the old societal norms and be less inclined to award alimony to a man than to a woman.
Who Can Receive Palimony in Washington?
Another interesting issue is whether palimony can be ordered by the court. In fact, Washington law does not make any specific provision for support awards (outside of child support) where there has not been a marriage. Washington does, however, provide for a division of property 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. Even with a CIR, though, there is no provision for alimony like support.
On the other hand, it could be interesting to see an argument made that the property of the couple should be divided unequally to make up for a difference in economic circumstances between the parties in lieu of palimony, similar to the argument often raised in divorce cases.
People who have had registered domestic partnerships should be aware that in many cases those automatically converted to marriages after the law on same gender marriages changed. If it did convert to a marriage, then that would also open the door to arguments for spousal support awards.
Include Palimony in a Cohabitation Agreement
One situation in which palimony might be available is where the couple had a specific cohabitation agreement that specifically provides for support in the event the relationship ends. Cohabitation agreements, as well as prenuptial and postnuptial agreements, can be good ways to make arrangements covering both life together and post-relationship arrangements that are based on the values of the couple rather than the standard laws that are in place.
I am not aware of any movement to introduce palimony legislation in Washington, so would not expect it to be become available anywhere in the near future. Future support arrangements are a good subject to discuss when getting into a marriage or marriage like relationship, and to consider having a Seattle Divorce Services help you with a prenuptial or cohabitation agreement to cover any decisions the partners come to about how they want their relationship to be structured.