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The Wild Card: Spousal Maintenance

Traditionally called "alimony," spousal support is now usually called spousal maintenance. Washington State's spousal support statute provides only general guidance and no specific formulas regarding an award of maintenance, so spousal maintenance can be awarded any time there is a need on the part of one spouse and an ability to pay on the part of the other. It is only available to married persons, and therefore is not awarded in cases where parties live together, regardless of the length of the cohabitation. It is one area of divorces or legal separations where the court has broad discretion to craft a solution to the problem of widely disparate incomes or earning potential between spouses, or to assist an economically disadvantaged spouse. It is a real “wild card” in the give and take of a divorce or legal separation.

There are many misconceptions about maintenance in Washington. For example, spousal maintenance will not be awarded or withheld as punishment for marital misconduct; since Washington is a “no-fault” divorce state, marital misconduct is usually not a factor in the divorce except as it impacts children or perhaps the wasting of marital assets. On the other hand, spousal maintenance can be awarded in cases where one party has simply chosen not to work at all even though that person is capable of earning some income in the workplace.

Let’s say that Mother has stayed at home to raise children, while Father went out and built a career. Fast-forward 25 years. The kids are now gone, and Father has a high-paying job. In the case of a divorce, even though Mother has a community property interest in Father’s retirement, that retirement may not kick in for another 15 years or so. The court will not send Mother to work at McDonald’s for minimum wage while Father lives high on the hog as an executive. In this case, Mother is definitely an economically disadvantaged spouse, and the court will likely award spousal maintenance while she gets training or education for a job. This is generally termed “rehabilitative” spousal maintenance - the maintenance is awarded for the purpose economically rehabilitating the disadvantaged spouse by equipping him/her for the workplace. If the couple is closer to retirement, then the court may just award maintenance to support the disadvantaged spouse until retirement kicks in, at which time both will simply live on their respective shares of the retirement income.

The duration and amount of support awarded will depend upon the specific facts and circumstances of each case. RCW 26.09.090 is Washington State's spousal maintenance statute, and gives us the factors to consider in determining the need for as well as the amount and duration of spousal maintenance. These factors are:

  1. The financial resources of each party;

  2. The work experience and earning prospects of each spouse, including consideration for the time required for one spouse to obtain training for becoming employed or self-supporting in an occupation appropriate to his/her skills, interests, style of life, and other attendant circumstances;

  3. The age and physical and emotional conditions of each party;

  4. The duration of the marriage;

  5. The standard of living established during the marriage; and

  6. The ability of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought to meet his/her needs and financial obligations while also meeting those of the spouse seeking maintenance.

In Washington, spousal support can influence how the marital property distribution is awarded, which is why it can become a very important part of the final outcome of any divorce. Often, there is a fair amount of “horse-trading” that goes on in between spousal support payments and the distribution of various debts and property.

Because the issue of spousal support is so fact specific, it is really impossible to assess the likelihood of a spousal maintenance award in your case without having a lot of information about your marriage. When you contact counsel with questions regarding spousal maintenance, please be prepared with as much information as you can gather about your marriage. You will need basic information such as ages and marriage duration, as well as more in-depth information such as your incomes, occupations, educations, lifestyle, and health issues. Contact us if you are going through a divorce or legal separation and have questions about spousal maintenance.

Caleb Morgan