What You Need to Know About Spousal Support (Maintenance) in Washington State

Spousal Support like a Bridge

In Washington state, alimony is referred to as maintenance. Maintenance is court-ordered spousal support payments that one spouse makes to assist with the living expenses of the other spouse for a period of time and for a particular purpose. 

Maintenance is especially important in cases of divorce where one spouse’s role in the marriage was to primarily maintain the home and care for the children while the other spouse’s role was to primarily generate income to support the family.

Maintenance can be awarded for a number of purposes in Washington state. Read on if you are about to begin the divorce or legal separation process or are in the middle of such a case and want to learn more.  

How do you qualify for maintenance in Washington state, and what factors will a court consider?

Foremost considerations in awarding maintenance are the need of the recipient spouse and the ability of the supporting spouse to pay. Therefore, the supported spouse must demonstrate their need for financial assistance and the supporting spouse’s ability to pay.

Along with awarding maintenance, the court divides and distributes the couple’s community and separate property. The court also determines parenting time and child support payments when dependent children are involved. If the court concludes that maintenance is warranted, the judge will determine the amount, form, and duration.  

Though there is no formalized equation to determine the amount a court awards for maintenance as exists for child support, at a minimum the judge must consider the following factors:

(a) The financial resources of the party seeking maintenance, including separate or community property apportioned to him or her, and his or her ability to meet his or her needs independently, including the extent to which a provision for support of a child living with the party includes a sum for that party;

(b) The time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find employment appropriate to his or her skill, interests, style of life, and other attendant circumstances;

(c) The standard of living established during the marriage;

(d) The duration of the marriage;

(e) The age, physical and emotional condition, and financial obligations of the spouse seeking maintenance; and

(f) The ability of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought to meet his or her needs and financial obligations while meeting those of the spouse seeking maintenance.

The court may not consider marital misconduct (such as extra-marital affairs) in determining whether maintenance is appropriate, penalize the spouse who wanted the divorce (such as which spouse filed the action), or make or deny awards based on a protected status (such as race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation). Both men and women are equally entitled to receive maintenance if warranted. The court’s goal is to make a maintenance award that is “just” all relevant factors considered.

Types of maintenance in Washington state.

There are different types of spousal support in Washington state. Which you are awarded will turn on various factors, and it might include more than a single type. They are:

1. Temporary maintenance

Temporary maintenance is typically awarded to one spouse for the duration of a divorce or legal separation proceeding. It is only available while the case is pending and ends when the judge finalizes the divorce or legal separation. It also ends if your case is dismissed early without finalization by you or the court.

2. Post-decree maintenance

Whether maintenance will be awarded after the divorce or legal separation concludes is determined by the court’s analysis of the factors outlined above. The length of the marriage can heavily influence the question of how much, if any, and for how long.

In short-term marriages (those five years and under), maintenance awards can be less likely. This is because the goal in short-term marriages is to attempt to put the parties back into the position they would have been had they simply not married. In short-term marriages, even where one spouse has an apparent great need and the other has the ability to contribute, had they simply never married, their relative circumstances now would still be as they were at the time they married. If maintenance is awarded, it is anticipated it would be short in duration.

On the other hand, in long-term marriages (those 25 years or longer), the focus of the court is entirely different. Awards are forward-looking rather than backward-looking. Depending on the division of assets and debts, long-term maintenance may be awarded to assist the receiving spouse to the point where retirement income begins. 

Washington does not favor lifetime maintenance awards, but in cases where older spouses divorce, a spouse is disabled, the marital asset base is meager, or one spouse never worked outside the family home, it may be unrealistic to expect them to be capable of devoting the time required to acquire the skills and education necessary to be fully self-supporting. In such instances, the court may enter an award for long-term maintenance in favor of the disadvantaged spouse. An aim in long-term marriages is to attempt to put the spouses on equal footing for the remainder of their lives. 

Of course, many marriages fall between those two extremes. In cases where a dependent spouse can foreseeably transition into becoming financially independent, maintenance may be awarded until they 

can obtain sufficient training to reenter the workforce or transition to another means of supporting themselves. This type of spousal support is sometimes also called rehabilitative support, given that the goal is for the receiving spouse to be able to become financially independent.   

This may apply in cases where one spouse has left (or never entered) the workforce because they were the partner who took care of the family while the other spouse remained employed gainfully, honing skills and advancing their career accordingly. Judges will include an end date for maintenance of this type. And while it is possible to later request a modification of the duration and amount, it should not be assumed the award will change absent a substantial and unpredictable change of circumstances.

Compensatory maintenance

Compensatory maintenance is unusual, but there are times when such an award is just. Although the court cannot order or deny maintenance based on the misconduct of a spouse, there are rare instances where the consequences of one spouse’s conduct result in the need to award maintenance to the other spouse in order to effectuate an economically overall fair disposition of the marital estate.

A common example is where one spouse dissipates or hides property or money in a volume significant enough, and in an attempt to, prevent the court from ordering a just distribution. In such a situation, the court can order maintenance to compensate for the improper removal of assets that might otherwise have been available to be awarded to the spouse who was victimized.  

Who carries the tax burden for spousal support?

In the past, spouses who paid maintenance could claim such payments as a tax deduction each year. Maintenance was treated as income by the Internal Revenue Service, and the recipient spouse was always required to report and pay taxes on maintenance payments received.

However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated the tax-deduction opportunity for spousal maintenance payors and the requirement for recipients to report it as income. This change applies to all divorces finalized or modified after January 1, 2019.

What happens if you are receiving spousal support and remarry, or die?

Unless a judge rules otherwise, maintenance is terminated if the recipient remarries. Likewise, maintenance normally terminates upon the death of either the recipient or provider.

How will the schedule of payments be determined?

The court determines the schedule and method of maintenance payments. Judges usually order periodic  payments, which could be bi-weekly or monthly, and will specify a date on which payments must be consistently made. Payments are commonly in the form of a sum of money paid to the recipient spouse, but can also be in the form of requiring the payor spouse to pay certain ongoing obligations or bills on behalf of the recipient spouse.

What is the impact of child support on spousal maintenance?

Determinations of child support and spousal maintenance should be made in conjunction with each other. If the maintenance recipient also receives child support, courts must balance the two awards. A judge  will typically limit the combined financial contribution of maintenance and child support ordered to equal half of the former family income.

What if I need to request a modification to a spousal support order?

Either spouse may request a modification of spousal support where there has been a substantial change in their financial situation. If, for instance, one of the spouses becomes permanently disabled and unable to work, they may request a modification of the maintenance order.

However, until the judge has approved changes to the support order, the supporting spouse is still legally required to continue the payment of the previously ordered maintenance amount and the recipient spouse is still entitled to receive only the amount ordered. If one of the spouses believes they should pay less or receive more, it is incumbent upon them to legally pursue a modification. Failure to pay maintenance may  result in court-imposed fines or jail time. And maintenance cannot be retroactively modified.

Find a Washington state lawyer experienced in spousal support.

If maintenance is a consideration in your divorce or legal separation, you should be proactive about finding experienced legal representation to provide you with the necessary expertise and advocate on your behalf. Whether you are being asked to pay maintenance or are the spouse seeking it, having a qualified team of legal experts is crucial to analyze your circumstances thoroughly and accurately.

At Elise Buie Family Law, our team of Seattle divorce and family lawyers have decades of cumulative experience negotiating spousal support. We understand how detailed and nuanced a maintenance  calculation can be. Our compassionate family lawyers are here to listen. Contact us today.  

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