Washington State Alimony Laws

By Bernadette A. Safrath

Close-up of divorce decree document and gavel

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Washington state law sets forth the procedure for dividing property and awarding alimony when spouses divorce or a domestic partnership dissolves. Alimony, also called spousal support or maintenance, is a monetary award paid by one spouse to the other after marital property has been divided by the court.

Alimony and Property

The main factor a court considers when determining the amount and duration of alimony is the value of each spouse's property after the marital assets are divided. Washington is a community property state, which generally means each spouse will receive half of the marital assets. However, the spouses' financial circumstances can become uneven after a divorce if one spouse has excessive separate property. Separate property is property owned before the marriage, received as a gift or inheritance during the marriage, or property purchased during the marriage with other separate property.

Amount of Alimony

In addition to the spouses' financial circumstances, a Washington court considers other factors when setting the alimony award. These factors include the spouses' ages and health conditions, the standard of living established during the marriage and paying spouse's ability to meet his alimony obligation while meeting his own needs. Additionally, the court will examine the time the receiving spouse might need to obtain training or education sufficient to gain employment and become self-sufficient. Such employment should be in the field of the spouse's "skill, interests [or] style of life." One factor the court will not consider is a spouse's misconduct, such as adultery or abandonment, leading to the end of the marriage or partnership.

Duration of Alimony

The last factor is the duration of the marriage or domestic partnership. This factor is the most important in determining how long alimony should be paid. For example, long-term marriages, which are marriages of 25 years or longer, generally require permanent maintenance, as determined in the 2007 case Marriage of Rockwell. The court held that spouses in such long-term marriages should be in equal positions for the rest of their lives so the financially weaker spouse will receive alimony to even the spouses' financial circumstances. This case is binding law on counties in Washington's appellate division, King and Snohomish, but is followed by many other Washington trial courts.

For marriages with a duration of less than 25 years, Washington courts often follow a ratio of one to three. This means that for every three years of marriage, a spouse will receive one year of maintenance. For example, if a marriage lasted 15 years, alimony payments would last for five years and a ten year marriage would permit alimony for a duration of three years.

Termination of Alimony

Washington law states that an order for spousal maintenance or support may terminate prior to the date set forth in the order in limited circumstances. If the paying spouse dies, his obligation to pay ceases. Additionally, if the receiving spouse dies or gets remarried, she is no longer entitled to alimony.