Adultery in Washington: Does Cheating Affect Alimony?

Learn how adultery will affect the judge’s decisions about your Washington divorce case, including alimony, child custody, and child support.

By , Retired Judge

Adultery can cause a marriage to become an emotional nightmare, and it's a common cause of divorce. When you're ending your marriage because one (or both of you) has cheated on the other, it's possible that the adultery will impact the outcome of your divorce, including any potential award of alimony. Every state's alimony laws are different; here's a breakdown of how the state of Washington's alimony laws address adultery.

An Overview of Alimony in Washington

Divorce can cause financial turmoil and reveal hard truths about each spouse's post-divorce financial prospects. Often, one spouse will be in a better position than the other, with, for example, a higher-paying job, a more promising career path, or access to more assets.

The courts attempt to balance these financial inequities by ordering the spouse who's more financially sound to pay alimony (referred to as "maintenance" in Washington) to the other. The main goal of alimony is to ensure that both spouses can provide for their own needs after the divorce.

That being the case, the trend in Washington (and most other states) is to award short-term alimony, with an eye toward allowing the spouse seeking alimony to become self-sufficient. In many instances—especially if a spouse was out of the job market for a significant time—this means giving that spouse an opportunity to obtain the training or education necessary to find meaningful employment.

Permanent (indefinite) alimony has fallen out of favor, although you might see it in long-term marriages, particularly where an unemployed spouse who's seeking alimony isn't a good candidate for employment, perhaps because of age or illness.

Note also that the law permits judges to award temporary alimony to a needy spouse while the divorce process plays out, meaning before the court issues a final judgment of divorce. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 26.09.060 (2021).)

How Washington Courts Determine Alimony

Washington's law gives judges a lot of latitude in deciding alimony issues. The bottom line is that a judge's decision regarding alimony must be fair to both spouses.

Alimony is by no means automatic in a Washington divorce. The court will consider all the evidence, and if it concludes that alimony is appropriate under the circumstances, it will decide how much should be paid and for how long, without regard to misconduct. The law contains a list of factors Washington courts must consider, including:

  • the financial resources (including separate or community property) of the spouse seeking alimony, as well as that spouse's ability to live independently, and make child support payments, if applicable
  • the time necessary to acquire enough education or training to enable the receiving spouse to find appropriate employment
  • the standard of living established during the marriage
  • the length of the marriage
  • the age, physical and emotional condition, and financial obligations of the spouse who's seeking alimony
  • the ability of the paying spouse to meet that spouse's own needs while also meeting the needs of the receiving spouse, and
  • any other relevant factors.

(Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 26.09.090 (2021).)

Does Committing Adultery in Washington Affect Whether the Court Will Grant a Divorce?

Washington is a "no-fault" divorce state. This means that in order to obtain a divorce, it doesn't matter who's to blame for the failure of the marriage—adultery doesn't play a role in determining whether or not a judge grants a divorce.

In order to obtain a divorce (also called "dissolution of marriage") in Washington, the court needs to find only that the marriage is "irretrievably broken," meaning it can't be salvaged. Once that's proven, and 90 days have elapsed since the spouse who didn't file for the divorce is served (receives) the divorce papers, the court can enter the divorce decree. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 26.09.030 (2021).)

Every state provides for some form of no-fault divorce. One of the benefits of this type of divorce is that it tends to tamp down the hostility that often accompanies divorces based on traditional grounds (reasons) that allege marital misconduct, such as physical or mental cruelty, fraud, substance abuse, and adultery. Note that several states (but not Washington) still permit spouses to file for divorce on fault-based grounds.

Does Adultery Affect Alimony in Washington?

Under Washington state divorce laws, adultery (or any other marital fault) doesn't factor into a judge's decision regarding whether to award alimony or, if awarded, the amount or duration. The Washington statute that lists the factors for a judge to consider when making alimony decisions (as seen above) specifically states that the court's ruling must be made without regard to misconduct.

As an aside, if a spouse's adultery harms the other spouse financially, the court can determine that the wronged spouse should be compensated for the loss, perhaps by awarding that spouse a greater share of marital assets. You might see compensation like this in situations where unfaithful spouses use marital funds to lavish their lovers with expensive gifts or trips.

Does Adultery Affect Custody or Child Support in Washington?

In most Washington divorce cases, the fact that a spouse has cheated doesn't affect custody or child support. However, it's important to remember that when it comes to custody matters, judges must prioritize the best interests of the children. So when a parent's adulterous behavior compromises a child's health or safety, it could certainly affect a judge's custody decision. For example, if a parent leaves a young child unattended because that parent is off having an extra-marital affair, it's likely a judge wouldn't be inclined to entrust the child's well-being to that parent.