Spousal maintenance, also known as alimony, is available to Washington courts in divorce and legal separation cases in order to make a fair and equitable distribution of the marital estate. There are two primary factors that courts use in determining how much maintenance (if any) to award and for how long. These two primary factors are the length of the marriage and “need and ability to pay”.
Length of the marriage is something every judge will look closely at. Washington case law divides marriages into three terms: 1) Short term marriages (7 years of less); 2) Mid-term marriages (8 years to 24 years); 3) Long-term marriages (25 years or more). Judges in Spokane County often treat marriages of 20 years or more as long term marriages. In short-term marriages, alimony is not favored. If awarded, it usually does not last much longer than the divorce process itself. In mid-term marriages, alimony is favored and may last 1-5 years beyond the date of divorce. The longer the mid-term marriage (for example 17 years), the more maintenance is favored. In long-term marriages, alimony is favored and can exceed 5 years in duration, even awarded up to a lifetime award (to retirement age).
These rules are not set in stone. A short-term marriage can have longer alimony if a child has been born or if a spouse has special needs. Maintenance may be reduced or not granted in long term marriages where both spouses are gainfully employed. Alimony is more likely if one spouse is a high earner, regardless of the term of the marriage. Many factors are in play as the court determines maintenance, but a primary consideration for a judge will always be the marriage length.
The other primary consideration is “need and ability to pay”. A spouse may need maintenance, but if the the other spouse cannot afford it, little or no alimony will be ordered. On the other hand if there is a need and the other spouse is a high earner, alimony is very likely. Please keep in mind that the judges are sophisticated. They look beyond mere claims of “I can’t afford it”. However, it is critical for a spouse seeking maintenance, or defending against it, to work with their attorney to present the best possible evidence to the court of the financial circumstances of the parties. A proper financial declaration, banking information, paystub and tax return documentation, and supporting declarations are critical.