Understanding and Calculating Alimony in Washington

Learn how judges make decisions on alimony in Washington, and whether you can change a maintenance award later.

By , Retired Judge

Alimony (called "maintenance" in Washington) is intended to provide some financial assistance for a spouse who may need it during the divorce process and for a period of time after the final divorce. If you or your spouse is (or will be) requesting alimony as part of the process of filing for divorce in Washington, you should understand how maintenance works and how judges make alimony decisions—even if you hope to reach an agreement on the issue and avoid a trial (more on that below).

Are There Different Types of Alimony in Washington?

Washington law provides for only two types of alimony:

  • temporary maintenance while the divorce case is in progress, and
  • maintenance for a certain period of time after the divorce is final.

(Wash. Rev. Code §§ 26.09.060(1), 26.09.090 (2023).)

Unlike many other states, Washington doesn't categorize types of post-divorce alimony meant to address the circumstances—financial and otherwise—that existed during a marriage.

How Do Judges Determine Alimony in Washington?

At the most basic level, alimony depends on one spouse's need for financial support and the other spouse's ability to pay it. Under Washington law, judges may award maintenance in an amount and for a period of time that the judge believes is fair after, considering all of the relevant circumstances, including:

  • the financial resources of the spouse requesting maintenance, including assets received in the property division as part of the divorce and the ability to meet one's needs independently
  • the time required to get enough education or training to enable the supported spouse to find appropriate employment
  • the standard of living that the couple enjoyed while they were married
  • the length of the marriage
  • the age, physical and emotional condition, and financial obligations of the spouse requesting maintenance, and
  • whether the other spouse could meet their own needs and financial obligations while paying maintenance.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 26.09.090 (2023).)

How Does the Length of the Marriage Affect Maintenance?

Although the length of the marriage is just one of the factors that judges must consider when making alimony decisions, it seems to play an outsized role in practice. Washington judges tend to treat requests for alimony differently, depending on how long the marriage lasted. Here's how that typically works:

  • Short-term marriages. Because short-term marriages (up to three or five years) usually haven't changed the spouses' financial situation much, judges often approach alimony in these situations with the goal of putting the spouses in the same financial position they were in before the marriage. This may mean that a spouse who needs support will receive only temporary maintenance until the divorce is final. But some circumstances might call for post-divorce support for a short period.
  • Mid-length marrriages. There's a great deal of variation in alimony awards when couples have been married between five and 20 or 25 years, largely because a lot can happen to affect their financial circumstances in that time. That's especially the case when one spouse has taken time away from the job market to raise children. Although this isn't spelled out in Washington law, some judges use a general rule of thumb to award one year of maintenance for every three or four years of marriage. Also, they may award a higher amount at first (while the supported spouse is getting the necessary education or training), followed by a "step-down" lower amount until the maintenance completely ends.
  • Long-term marriages. With long-term marriages (20-25 years or longer), judges tend to aim at equalizing the spouses' financial condition for the foreseeable future, sometimes even indefinitely. This is sometimes referred to as "permanent" alimony, even though Washington law doesn't explicitly provide for permanent maintenance.

How Does Child Support Affect Maintenance in Washington?

When considering the financial resources of the spouse who's requesting maintenance, judges must take into account any child support that spouse will be receiving. (Wash. Rev. Code § 26.09.090(1)(a) (2023).) Although child support is technically for the children, sometimes it can incidentally benefit the primary custodial parent by lowering general living expenses.

How Does a Spouse's Misconduct Affect Maintenance?

Washington law specifically states that judges should not consider a spouse's misconduct when awarding maintenance. (Wash. Rev. Code § 26.09.090 (2023).The purpose of alimony isn't to punish the spouse whose conduct may have led to the breakdown of the marriage.

That said, a spouse's misconduct might play a role in a maintenance award if it affected the other spouse's need for alimony—for instance, if domestic violence has caused ongoing harm to a spouse's physical or mental condition, and thus hinders that spouse's ability to make a living.

Who Pays Alimony?

Either spouse may request alimony, regardless of gender. Typically, if one spouse needs financial help and the other can afford to pay it, the judge will order the higher-earning spouse to pay alimony to the lower-earning spouse.

Most maintenance awards call for periodic payments (typically monthly or every two weeks), but there are different ways of making those payments, depending in part on whether the couple has dependent children.

  • When there's also a child support order in the case, the paying spouse must send both the maintenance and child support payments to the Washington State Support Registry, unless the judge has approved the spouses' agreement for an alternate arrangement.
  • If the couple doesn't have any dependent children, the judge may order that the maintenance payments go either directly to the receiving spouse or to the court clerk, who will then forward the money to the receiving spouse.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 26.09.120 (2023).)

If your spouse isn't meeting the court-ordered payment schedule, you may ask the court to enforce the maintenance order by filing a formal motion (written legal request). You can request an order that payments be withheld from your spouse's wages. You might also request that a judge hold your spouse in contempt of court, which could result in substantial fines or even jail time for the delinquent spouse.

How Long Does Alimony Last in Washington?

Temporary alimony ends when the divorce is finalized. The divorce decree will state when other alimony awards will end.

Unless both spouses agree in writing, or the divorce decree states otherwise, any spousal maintainence will end when:

  • either spouse dies, or
  • the receiving spouse remarries or registers a new domestic partnership.

(Wash. Rev. Code § 26.09.170(2) (2023).)

How to Modify Alimony in Washington

Either spouse may ask the court to modify or terminate spousal maintenance, unless the couple had a written agreement providing otherwise (more on that below). But in order to succeed with a modification request, a spouse must be able to prove that there's been a substantial change of circumstances, such as involuntary loss of a job or an income increase. (Wash. Rev. Code § 26.09.170(1)(b) (2023).)

Be aware that in most situations, unless you and your spouse have an agreement about the proposed changes, alimony modification proceedings involve complicated legal issues that are best handled by an experienced family law attorney.

Taxes and Alimony

If your divorce was final before 2019, the paying spouse may continue to deduct alimony payments for purposes of federal income taxes, and the receiving spouse must report those payments as income. However, for all couples who divorced after 2018, the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated any tax deduction or income reporting requirements for alimony. That means the Internal Revenue Service won't count these payments as income for the recipient, and the paying spouse won't get the deduction.

Alimony Agreements, Mediation, and Legal Help

As with all other issues in your divorce, you and your spouse always have the option of reaching a settlement agreement (known as a "separation contract" in Washington) that addresses whether one of you will pay alimony and, if so, how much the payments will be and how long they will last.

If you're having trouble agreeing, divorce mediation might help you resolve your differences. And if you're hesitant about negotiating a compromise, it may help to know that going to trial increases the cost of divorce exponentially, as well as making the process more stressful and take longer.

But if you haven't been able to reach an agreement even after mediation, you will probably need an experienced family law attorney to protect your interests and help you navigate your divorce. Here are some tips on meeting with potential lawyers and questions you should ask.