Family Law

Property Division – Spousal Maintenance

In Washington, alimony is referred to as either “spousal support” or “spousal maintenance.”  An award of spousal maintenance aims not merely a means to provide the financially disadvantaged spouse with bare necessities, “but rather a flexible tool by which the parties’ standard of living may be equalized for an appropriate period of time.”[1]  To accomplish the statute—RCW 26.09.090—enumerates six factors that must be considered:

(a) The financial resources of the party seeking maintenance, including separate or community property apportioned to him, and his ability to meet his needs independently, including the extent to which a provision for support of a child living with the party includes a sum for that party as custodian;

(b) The time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find employment appropriate to his skill, interests, style of life, and other attendant circumstances;

(c) The standard of living established during the marriage;

(d) The duration of the marriage;

(e) The age, physical and emotional condition, and financial obligations of the spouse seeking maintenance;

(f) The ability of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought to meet his needs and financial obligations while meeting those of the spouse seeking maintenance.

Although no one is entitled to spousal maintenance as a matter of right,[2] the foregoing factors have been described as “extremely flexible.”[3]  The statute places emphasis on the justness of an award, not its method of calculation.[4]  But an award of permanent maintenance is rare,[5] and courts have occasionally approved awards of lifetime maintenance in a reasonable amount when it is clear the spouse seeking maintenance will not be able to contribute significantly to his or her own livelihood.[6]  Those cases are few and far between.  The general rule of thumb is that you may be awarded one year of maintenance for (roughly) every four years of marriage.

An award of spousal maintenance will be made in consideration of the property division.[7]  After all, the statutory factors governing the need for spousal maintenance are designed to account for all relevant economic circumstances, which inherently encompasses the property division. In the case of In re Marriage of Kaplan, the wife argued the trial court erred in its maintenance award (six years’ worth) which was based, in part, on awarding her the family house that she would thereafter have to sell; but the Court of Appeals disagreed with the wife, reasoning she “was awarded the family home and other assets for her to use to maintain her standard of living.”[8]

It should also be noted that any marital misconduct by one or both spouses—including infidelity or abuse—is not considered in spousal maintenance.  In fact, the statute explicitly states that the division will be done “without regard to misconduct.”[9]  The legislature intended to remove the concept of fault from divorce actions to better reflect the realities of modern marriage, something we have written about here.  Courts have said misconduct refers to “immoral or physically abusive conduct within the marital relationship;” however, marital misconduct it does not encompass “gross fiscal improvidence, the squandering of marital assets or . . . the deliberate and unnecessary incurring of tax liabilities.”[10]

There is an abundance of case law relating to each of the factors set forth in RCW 26.09.090.  And, those factors are nonexclusive.  The court may therefore take into consideration other factors, such as intangible contributions to the marriage.  For more information on these factors and whether your case is suited for spousal support, contact a family law attorney at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson.

[1] Washburn v. Washburn, 677 P.2d 152, 158 (Wash. 1984).
[2] Cleaver v. Cleaver, 516 P.2d 508, 512 (Wash. Ct. App. 1973).
[3] Washburn, 677 P.2d at 158.
[4] Id. at 160.
[5] In re Marriage of Matthews, 853 P.2d 462, 468 (Wash. Ct. App. 1993).
[6] See In re Marriage of Sheffer, 802 P.2d 817 (Wash. Ct. App. 1990); In re Marriage of Bulicek, 800 P.2d 394 (Wash. Ct. App. 1990); In re Marriage of Morrow, 770 P.2d 197 (Wash. Ct. App. 1989).
[7] In re Marriage of Kaplan, 421 P.3d  1046, 1055 (2018).
[8] Id.
[9] RCW 26.09.090.
[10] Urbana v. Urbana, 195 P.3d 959, 965 (Wash. Ct. App. 2008).