What is Alimony?
Alimony, also referred to as “spousal maintenance,” is cash payments from one spouse to another after separation and the final decree of divorce. Alimony may be granted by the court when a spouse who cannot work full-time or has lower income requests payments from the other spouse to support themselves after the divorce.
All states have alimony statutes in effect. However, these statutes differ both in the type of alimony permitted and in the requirements that must be met to receive alimony. In every state, therefore, a spouse can request alimony as long as they meet the state's criteria. The Revised Code of Washington deals with spousal maintenance in RCW 26.09.090. This post will discuss the meaning of that statute.
How is Alimony Determined?
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. An example of property includes cars, houses, bank accounts, land, etc.
Washington courts also consider other factors when setting the alimony award. These factors include:
• The age and health conditions of each spouse
• The standard of living established during the marriage
• The paying spouse's ability to meet his alimony obligation while meeting his own needs
• The time the receiving spouse may 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 of style of life.
• The duration of the marriage or domestic partnership
The court will not consider as a factor a spouse's misconduct, such as adultery or abandonment.
Washington is a community property state, which generally means each spouse will receive half of the marital assets. Community Property laws state that all assets and debts acquired during the marriage are owned equally by both spouses. However, if one spouse has excessive separate property, the spouses' financial circumstances can become uneven after a divorce. 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.
Maintenance should be no more than the recipient requires, nor should it exceed the payor's ability to pay. Each party's need and ability is relative to the other spouse. Alimony would be inappropriate if both parties' economic positions were roughly equal since their relative need and ability would be the same. But if a working husband can barely meet his bills and the wife did not work during the marriage and has neither income nor time to look for a job, a court might still require the husband to pay some spousal maintenance.
A judge is unlikely to award alimony if:
• The marriage did not last for several years
• The requesting spouse never left the workforce and therefore does not need to get back on her feet
• There is nothing to prevent the spouse from going to work (no children at home, etc.)
It is commonly thought that if the requesting spouse can go back to work, they should do so. While judges will consider the length of the marriage when considering awarding spousal maintenance, the requesting spouse's ability to go back to work will ultimately affect the decision regardless of the length of the marriage.
Rehabilitative alimony allows the recipient to get back on her feet after a divorce. This type of alimony has a fixed end date, usually within less than a year, to allow for any rehabilitation required to return to work or find a job.
A judge may rule for reimbursement alimony for the time, effort or monetary support one spouse put into the other's education or business. If one spouse supported the other through a business degree for 3.5 years and was divorced shortly after, a judge might provide the supporting spouse with reimbursement alimony until the education debt between spouses is cleared. The duration of this support lasts only as long as this debt balances.
What is the Duration of Alimony?
The duration of the marriage is the most important factor in determining how long alimony should be paid. Most states prohibit permanent alimony, but Washington State is an exception in some cases. Marriages of 25 years or longer generally require permanent maintenance in Washington.
King County Judge Robert Winsor wrote an article that helped shape most jurists' view of spousal maintenance in Washington, viewing maintenance as a tool to achieve an end, and that end depends upon the length of the marriage. He divided marriages into three categories by length:
- Short marriages (0-5 years). The goal is to put the lower-earning spouse back in the economic position she was in prior to the marriage. This may be enough to pay the basic bills for a few months to support them while job hunting.
- Mid-length marriages (5-25 years). Mid-length marriages are the least predictable as to the amount and length of maintenance awards. Most judges award maintenance lasting 20-33% of the length of the mid-length marriage, with the amount tapering off over time.
- Long-term marriages (25+ years). For long-term marriages, Judge Winsor said to put the parties on an equal financial footing for many years, if not for the remainder of their lives. This means maintenance awards after long-term marriages tend to be enough to ensure each party has half the former family's financial resources.
Despite the general practice of dividing assets evenly in a community property state, the Washington court is not required to divide community property equally. In re Marriage of White, 105 Wash.App. 545, 549, 20 P.3d 481 (2001), “In a long term marriage of 25 years or more, the trial court's objective is to place the parties in roughly equal financial positions for the rest of their lives.” The longer the marriage, the more likely a court will make a disproportionate distribution of the community property. “Where one spouse is older, semi-retired and dealing with ill health, and the other spouse is employable, the court does not abuse its description in ordering an unequal division of community property,” In re Marriage of Schweitzer, 81 Wash.App. 589, 915 P.2d 575 (1996).
Termination of Alimony
In Washington law, an order for spousal maintenance can be terminated prior to the date set forth in the order, but only under limited circumstances, such as death. If the paying spouse dies, they are released from the obligation to pay spousal maintenance. If the receiving spouse dies or gets remarried, they are no longer entitled to receive alimony.
Impact of Pre and Post-Nuptial Agreements
If the spouses have signed a pre or post-nuptial agreement prohibiting alimony in any circumstance, neither party will receive alimony. The exception to this rule is when one spouse proves that he or she was forced to consent to the agreement. This requires evidence that the spouse's consent was given under extreme duress or fear. Absent this evidence, most courts will deny an alimony request.
In a Nutshell…
Generally speaking, the court is sensitive to individual circumstances when it comes to spousal maintenance within the purpose of the guidelines mentioned above.
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