How to Calculate Spousal Maintenance in Washington State
By Beverly Bird
Updated December 14, 2018
Courts make it relatively easy – if not painless – to calculate child support with worksheets and specific equations that let you crunch numbers and come up with something close to what you’ll owe when you divorce. But, this is rarely the case with alimony, called spousal maintenance in Washington. There is no set formula for calculating maintenance and, in fact, it comes down to the discretion of your particular judge based on his interpretation of factors unique to your marriage.
When Maintenance is Typically Ordered
Washington’s statutes hold no real surprises when it comes to factors the court considers when deciding whether to order spousal maintenance. The guidelines are in line with those in many other states. If you’re wondering if the court will order spousal maintenance in your case, consider the standard of living you enjoyed while you were married. Then ask yourself if your ex can reasonably live in a style comparable to that on her own earnings. If not, the court may order spousal maintenance, but only if paying it doesn’t force you to live far below the marital standard of living. Spousal maintenance is never punitive in Washington – you won’t be ordered to pay it as reparation for some marital sin, such as adultery. When abuse is involved, however, this can tip the scales toward a maintenance order if one spouse can’t earn a living because of resulting physical or emotional impairment. Gender isn’t a factor when it comes to ordering maintenance in Washington – men can receive it just as women can – and the rules apply to domestic partnerships, as well.
Duration of Marriage
The length of your marriage is a critical factor when a judge is determining whether to order maintenance. Washington courts have taken the position that after short-term marriages, the fairest solution is to restore both spouses to the financial condition they were in before they tied the knot. For example, if your ex got by on $25,000 a year before you married three years ago, and still earns that income at the time you divorce, the court isn’t likely to order spousal maintenance just because you earn more than your spouse does. Equality of post-divorce lifestyles is given more importance after long-term marriages, particularly those that last 25 years or more. If your ex earns $25,000 a year and you earn $100,000 a year, the court would be more inclined to shift the money around after a long marriage so you can both live on roughly half the total combined incomes.
Washington is a community property state so you and your ex will equally divide all property acquired while you were married. The court considers that even if your spouse earns very little, she might not be left destitute if she’s receiving a full half of the community property, which could be enough to sustain her. For example, if she retains the marital home in exchange for you keeping a stock portfolio of equal value, she may not have mortgage payments to worry about, and so would not need as much – if anything – in the way of spousal maintenance. Likewise, if you’re paying child support, the court will subtract this from your income before determining whether the balance left available to you is sufficient for you to pay spousal maintenance and still live a lifestyle comparable to that of your ex.
Duration of Payments
Spousal maintenance is also based on the anticipated earnings of you and your spouse going forward. Your ex may only be earning $25,000 a year now, but he might be able to double that if he goes back to school for a degree. Washington courts can order maintenance for a prescribed period of time, just long enough to allow her to do so, if the marriage was of short duration. After a marriage of 25 years or more, courts are more likely to order permanent spousal maintenance. Maintenance always ends when either spouse dies, or if the receiving spouse remarries or enters into a new domestic partnership.
Washington State determines spousal maintenance on a case-by-case basis. It depends on your income, assets and expenses, your spouse's finances, how long you were married, and your standard of living before the marriage.
Beverly Bird is a practicing paralegal who has been writing professionally on legal subjects for over 30 years. She specializes in family law and estate law and has mediated family custody issues.