Spousal maintenance (alimony) is a payment from one spouse to the other to help lessen the financial hardship that often accompanies divorce. It is meant to assist the more financially-dependent spouse, not to punish a spouse who may have caused the marriage to fail. Either spouse may request maintenance from the other, regardless of how the marriage ended.
A court’s involvement in the process is not always necessary. Many divorcing spouses agree to the amount and length of payments on their own when they complete a divorce agreement. If one spouse wants to receive maintenance payments and can’t get the other to agree, however, a court will have to decide whether to award maintenance and the terms of the obligation.
In Washington, there is no formula to determine the amount and frequency of maintenance payments. Instead, a court considers a set of factors to come up with a fair award. These factors include the duration and standard of living during the marriage, and the requesting spouse’s age, physical and emotional condition, and financial obligations. The court also looks at the requesting spouse’s financial resources, such as the separate or community property acquired at divorce, and this spouse’s ability to self-support. Likewise, the court evaluates the other spouse’s ability to pay.
Especially in the case of a long marriage, a dependent spouse may need additional education or training to achieve financial independence. Where this is the case, a court also considers, among other factors, the time necessary for the requesting spouse to complete training and find employment that is appropriate to this spouse’s skills and interests.
In addition to these listed factors, a court is free to look at anything else that impacts the spouses’ financial well-being after divorce. It also has wide discretion in how the payments are structured. For example, a court could order payments to be made on a temporary basis, permanently, or a combination of the two. Also, payments could be made in lump sum, periodically, or both.
As soon as a maintenance order is in place, it may be changed for as long as payments are due unless there is a divorce agreement that says otherwise. Generally, changes to the amount of maintenance payments only can be made going forward. For example, if the paying spouse gets a substantial promotion after making payments for one year, the recipient spouse can’t ask the court to increase the amount on payments that have already been made. Instead, the recipient spouse could ask the court to increase future payments based on this new salary, but must show that this increase is a substantial change of circumstances.
Maintenance payments terminate if either spouse dies or if the spouse receiving maintenance remarries or files for a new domestic partnership.
In the event a spouse owes maintenance and has earned retirement benefits as a city or Washington state employee, the recipient spouse can ask for an assignment of these benefits if payment is more than 15 days late and the amount past due is greater than $100. Also, if payment is more than 15 days late and the paying spouse requests a withdrawal of contributions to the state retirement system, the result is the same. The recipient spouse can access those benefits.
Washington follows the IRS structure for taxing maintenance payments. If you are paying spousal maintenance, your payments are tax deductible. If you are receiving spousal maintenance, the IRS taxes what you receive as income.
All of the following sections refer to the Revised Code of Washington. You can read the law on spousal maintenance in Section 26.09.090. For more on modification and termination, see Section 26.09.170. Information on public retirement benefits is found in Section 26.09.138 and Chapter 41.50.
The Internal Revenue Service Publication 504, page 12, has more information on taxing maintenance payments.