Palimony and Alimony in Washington

Whether married or unmarried, one of the most important questions that must be answered when a couple separates is whether one spouse may be entitled to financial support. A family law attorney can help you understand how palimony or alimony could impact your separation.


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.

Strictly speaking, Washington law does not award either palimony or alimony. Instead, it awards “spousal support” or “spousal maintenance” as part of some divorces.  Notably, while Washington courts have created property and other marital-like rights to unmarried couples (those who the courts have determined were in a “committed intimate relationship,” i.e. a marriage-like relationship) the case law is clear that support may not be ordered in the absence of a legal marriage.  In order words, there is no such thing as “palimony” in Washington.

Broken Hearts and Money Concerns

Basic Spousal Support: Alimony

In Washington, spousal support is typically awarded to help balance the economic circumstances of the parties going forward. There are two main considerations when it comes to spousal support:

  1. How much (if any) should be awarded; and
  2. If spousal support is awarded, how long should it be awarded for?

In determining both how much to award and for how long, a number of factors are looked at, including, but not limited to:

  • current and expected future incomes
  • length of the marriage
  • health of the parties
  • the ages of the parties
  • community property awarded to each
  • separate property of each


Current and Future Incomes

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.

Obviously, expected future income can become a source of considerable disagreement in the context of determining whether one partner should pay support to another partner. It may ultimately require the opinion of a financial or economic expert. A family law attorney with experience in handling alimony cases can help you reach a fair outcome.


Length of the Marriage

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. While the length of a marriage is a more objective measure than expected future income, the partners may disagree over what impact the length of the marriage had on their future financial needs.


Ages and Health of the Partners

Tied to this are issues related to the respective ages and 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 receive alimony.


Division of Property

And of course the property, separate or 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 balance. 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. As mentioned above, Washington law does not allow 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 ability for the court to order palimony.

However, the fact that a court cannot order palimony in Washington, does not mean that the issue is irrelevant.  Since no support can be ordered in a CIR, an argument can be 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.

While there is no legislation currently pending, some experts and practitioners believe that future legislation will address this issue and provide express authority for the courts to order palimony. In the meantime, unwed couples should seek guidance from an experienced family law attorney to discuss their rights and potential obligations.


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. A cohabitation agreement could specifically lay out what one partner owes to the other in terms of future financial support or include a provision whereby both partners waive any claim to future financial support. And because the agreement is agreed to and signed by both partners, it will likely be enforced by the court just like any other contract or agreement.

I am not aware of any movement to introduce palimony legislation in Washington and am less optimistic than some of my colleagues. As a result, I do not expect it to become available anywhere in the near future. As a result, a cohabitation agreement may be your only opportunity to address this issue and protect your interests. Future support arrangements are always a good subject to discuss when getting into a marriage or marriage-like relationship, and we recommend working with a family law attorney who understands these issues.

Contact Seattle Divorce Services Today

We offer a wide variety of legal services to both married and unmarried couples at all stages of their relationships. If you have questions about palimony or spousal support — we can help you navigate this issue to ensure that it is given fair consideration and that your interests are fully protected. To get in touch, contact us today at 206-784-3049 to discuss your situation and how we can help.