Standards for Spousal Maintenance ("Alimony")

May 2014 | Family Law

In Washington, spousal maintenance (known in other states as “alimony”) may be ordered in dissolutions, legal separations, and in proceedings to have a marriage declared invalid. A common question is how the amount of maintenance is established and how long maintenance will be paid or received. Because child support is calculated based upon a specific formula set forth in the Revised Code of Washington, people who are familiar with how child support is calculated may assume that maintenance is calculated in a similar way. However, unlike child support, there is no formula to calculate spousal maintenance. Instead, the amount of maintenance, the length of maintenance, and even whether maintenance is ordered will be determined by the judge who decides the case—if the parties themselves are unable to reach an agreement regarding maintenance.

The factors that the parties and judge need to consider are statutory, and there are also many court decisions regarding spousal maintenance. The misconduct of either party (e.g., whether one party had an extramarital affair) is not relevant to whether maintenance is established nor to the amount and duration of maintenance.

Relevant factors include but are not limited to: (a) The financial resources of the party seeking maintenance; (b) The time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find appropriate employment; (c) The standard of living established during the marriage or domestic partnership; (d) The duration of the marriage or domestic partnership; (e) The age, physical and emotional condition, and financial obligations of the spouse or domestic partner seeking maintenance; and (f) The ability of the spouse or domestic partner from whom maintenance is sought to meet his or her needs and financial obligations while meeting those of the spouse or domestic partner seeking maintenance.Spousal maintenance is not just a means of providing bare necessities, but rather a flexible tool by which the parties’ standard of living may be equalized for an appropriate period of time. For this reason, some general principles apply to the awarding of maintenance:

  • Maintenance is usually not ordered when the parties have relatively equal incomes.
  • Generally, the longer the period of marriage, the longer the period of maintenance.
  • One purpose of maintenance is to provide the lower earning spouse the opportunity to receive additional training or education necessary to earn a higher income, so it can be helpful for a person requesting maintenance to have a plan for the additional training or education that s/he will need. • If one party has significant health issues which prevent him/her from working, it is more likely that the Court will order long term maintenance.
  • Even if one party has a need for maintenance, maintenance will not be ordered if the other party does not have the financial ability to pay maintenance—and parties need to keep in mind that the court may not agree with a party’s perception as to their “need” or their “ability” to pay.

If you have questions about spousal maintenance or other family law issues, contact attorneys Theresa Ahern or Mary Coleman at Curran Law Firm, P.S.—Experienced, dedicated, and responsive legal representation located in South King County.