Spousal Maintenance and Alimony

While a couple is married, one of them is likely to earn more income than the other. One spouse may work less than full time or not at all in order to have more time to take care of the couple’s children for example. If that couple gets divorced, the spouse with a lower capacity to generate income on their own may be entitled to payments from their former spouse, either for a limited period of time or for the rest of their lives. Under Washington family law, these payments are called spousal maintenance. They are also sometimes referred to as alimony.

What Is the Difference Between Spousal Maintenance and Alimony?

Traditionally, alimony was the term for payments from a former husband to his former wife following divorce that allowed her to maintain the lifestyle or standard of living she enjoyed during the marriage. Courts worked from the presumption that a divorced woman would be unable to provide for herself without a husband, especially if she was raising children.

Nowadays, courts have a more progressive view of how each spouse will be expected to contribute to their own livelihood, both while a couple is married and after the divorce. Courts and lawmakers also recognized that it is most often in the best interest of both parties to a divorce if both parties are financially independent of each other as soon as possible. This affords the parties more certainty than relying on their former spouse who could cease paying at some point, and it keeps them from needing to rush to court any time a payment is missed.

For these reasons, Washington law no longer uses the term “alimony.” Courts still sometimes order regular payments from one former spouse to the other following a divorce, but it now refers to these payments as “spousal maintenance,” even though common parlance still often refers to alimony. The main difference between alimony and spousal maintenance and alimony is that spousal maintenance rarely lasts for the rest of the parties’ lives. It is also not available in all divorces.

Will I Receive Alimony or Spousal Maintenance After My Divorce?

Maybe. There are two basic considerations that Washington courts will take into account when deciding whether or not it should award alimony to one of the parties to a divorce. One is the duration of the marriage. The other is the need for one party balanced against the other party’s ability to pay.

Case law in Washington divides marriages into three categories based on how long they lasted. A court will likely consider a marriage of seven years or less to be short-term. In these situations, it is unlikely that spousal maintenance will be included in the divorce decree entered by the court. In short-term marriages, Washington courts prefer to put both parties as close to the financial position they were in before the marriage as possible so that they will be independent of one another more quickly.

In medium-term marriages lasting between eight and twenty-four years, courts recognize that it will take parties longer to transition to their new financial independence, and favor awarding spousal maintenance to the party with less earning potential. However, maintenance will probably only be awarded for a limited period of time. Typically, spousal maintenance lasts between one and five years in these circumstances.

Long term marriages are those that lasted 25 years or more. In these cases, courts are likely to award spousal maintenance for the rest of the lower-earning spouse’s life, or at least until s/he reaches retirement age.

As mentioned above, courts consider more than simply how long a couple was married in determining spousal maintenance awards, and the rules about the length of the marriage are not set in stone. Courts also look at a number of other factors, in an attempt to balance the need of the lower-earning spouse for payments against the ability of the higher-earning spouse to afford them.

Need is determined by considering things like the financial resources of the party seeking maintenance and how long it will take him or her to get the necessary education or training to increase his or her earning potential. Courts will presume that both parties will work after the divorce, regardless of if they both did during the marriage and regardless of if a couple has children. The court will consider any factors that limit a party’s ability to work as well, such as age and physical and mental health issues. Spousal maintenance is more likely to be granted if a party has a legitimate reason why they cannot be expected to earn enough income on their own.

The ability to pay is simply a determination of whether or not the spouse being asked to pay maintenance can afford to do so. A court can recognize that the party seeking maintenance truly does need it, but still may not award maintenance if the party being asked to pay doesn’t have the resources to make payments and still meet their own financial obligations.

I Want Alimony or Spousal Maintenance After My Divorce. Do I Need a Lawyer?

Yes, you do. Washington courts can be somewhat unpredictable in the way they determine these issues. The law doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete guidance, so whether you get spousal maintenance at all, and how much any payments are worth, will be largely up to the discretion of an individual judge.

Because of this, parties that want to be sure they will receive maintenance payments as part of their divorce decree will need the help of a skilled family law attorney that knows how to demonstrate need to a court with evidence, as well as how to make sure the other party doesn’t succeed in claiming he or she cannot afford to pay maintenance.

If you are interested in pursuing spousal maintenance as part of your divorce, we encourage you to call David Crouse & Associates and schedule a consultation. Our attorneys will serve as dedicated, persuasive advocates through all stages of your divorce.

Crouse Erickson