Alimony (spousal maintenance) is a court-ordered payment that one spouse makes to the other. The purpose of maintenance payments in Washington is to ensure that neither spouse is left destitute during or after a divorce.
The court encourages both spouses to be self-supporting but also understands that, especially in situations where one spouse left a career to raise a family, some spouses need time and financial assistance to become independent.
Judges in Washington can award the following types of spousal maintenance:
Temporary support. The divorce process is almost never quick, nor is it cheap, and it’s common for one spouse to need financial help from the other while the case moves through the legal system. Some courts award temporary support to ensure both spouses can meet financial obligations during the divorce, regardless of job status. Temporary maintenance is only available while the divorce is pending and ends when the judge finalizes the divorce. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 26.09.060 (b).)
Short-term maintenance. In many situations, dependent spouses can become financially independent but may need time (and support) to acquire an education or job skills to find employment that will allow them to be self-supporting. For example, if a husband left his career to raise a family while his wife worked and increased her career skills, the court may order the wife to pay short-term (also called rehabilitative) maintenance for a period that allows the husband to refresh his education or skills to get back into the workforce.
Judges will include an end date or event (for example, graduating from college) for short-term support. Many courts will also permit a supported spouse to ask a court to extend or review the award before it expires.
Long-term maintenance. Sometimes called permanent support, long-term maintenance is rare but available to spouses who are unable to become self-supporting. For example, if you’ve only been married for 3 years, it’s unlikely the court will award long-term support. However, for longer marriages or where one spouse is unable to work due to a disability, advanced age, or if the supported spouse can’t acquire the skills necessary to find employment, the judge may order indefinite support.
Unless the court order states otherwise, if the supported spouse remarries or registers a new domestic partnership, the court will terminate spousal maintenance. Additionally, maintenance payments end if either spouse dies. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 26.09.170 (2).)
The hallmark of every spousal maintenance case in Washington is the “need and ability to pay”—meaning, the supported spouse must demonstrate a need for financial help and that the paying spouse can afford to pay. Before the court evaluates a spouse’s need for maintenance, the judge will first divide the couple’s community property, establish custody and parenting time, and calculate child support for the spouses.
Once the court confirms that spousal maintenance is appropriate, the judge must determine the type, amount, and duration of support for each case. There is no formula for judges to use to decide maintenance awards. Instead, the judge must consider each of the following factors:
Like most divorce-related issues, spouses can work together to negotiate the terms of the maintenance award in their divorce. Whether working one-on-one, in mediation, or with attorneys, if you and your spouse agree to the type, duration, and amount of support, the court will approve the order.
Judges have full discretion over the method and frequency of support payments. In Washington, it’s common for the judge to order periodic payments—which is usually bi-weekly or monthly. The court will typically include an income withholding order with the final judgment, which directs a paying spouse’s employer to withhold the funds for maintenance and forward it to the proper state agency. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 26.09.120.)
If a paying spouse is self-employed or doesn’t receive a regular paycheck, the judge may order lump-sum payments, which can be one payment or several over a short period of time.
In rare cases, judges may order a spouse to assign the title of personal or real property to satisfy maintenance payments.
Unless the order says otherwise, either spouse can request a modification of a spousal maintenance order if that spouse can demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances since the judge signed the last order. For example, if the paying spouse is in a car accident and becomes permanently disabled, the court will likely review the case and reevaluate the above-listed factors. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 26.09.170 (1).)
If you’re requesting a modification of your maintenance order, it’s essential for you to continue paying the current maintenance amount until the judge says otherwise. If you fail to follow the existing court order, the judge may ask you to attend a hearing to explain why and, as a result, may order you to pay your ex-spouse’s attorney and court fees, may fine you, or may sentence you to jail. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 26.09.160.)
Lump-sum and property transfers are generally nonmodifiable.
Historically, paying spouses could include maintenance payments as a tax deduction at the end of each year and the recipient would report and pay taxes on the income. However, for all divorces finalized (or modified) on or after January 1, 2019, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated the tax-deduction benefit of paying support and the reporting requirements for recipients.
The newest tax changes may impact your bottom line, especially if you’re the spouse paying support. Before you negotiate a support order or ask the judge to do it for you, speak with an experienced family law attorney in your area.