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Alimony and Spousal Maintenance
Alimony, in Washington Statue, is usually referred to as spousal maintenance or spousal support. It is defined as a money payment from one spouse to the other after divorce or as we say in Washington, dissolution of the marriage. The amount and the term of payments are determined on a case by case basis. There are no charts or guidelines. If you are interested, here is a link, the law is short and set out at RCW 26.09.090. Our clients are often surprised at the broad discretion of the courts: maintenance will be set at whatever amount and for just as long as the judge says. There are important factors that the judge must consider such as:
Financial resources and assets of the parties
Earning capacity of each spouse
Whether training or education may benefit one spouse
Health, fitness and age of each spouse
Standard of living during the marriage
Length of the marriage
Special needs or expenses of one or both spouses.
The law specifically states that misconduct during the course of the marriage, whether it be physical or emotional abuse, infidelity, substance abuse, or even reckless spending, will not to be considered in awarding spousal support. Interestingly, most lawyers (not in our firm of course) believe that misconduct is considered by judges when determining the rate and duration of maintenance, especially where the conduct of one party has diminished the assets of the marriage. At Divorce Litigation Partners, your Seattle Family Law Partners, we will seek a settlement that works for you regardless of your circumstances.
There is no published formula, but many Washington State Lawyers will say that marriages of less than three years rarely support a finding for spousal maintenance. After three years a 4 to 1 ratio is often used, so that a 20 year marriage will result in a maintenance award of 5 years in duration. Still exceptions abound because spousal maintenance is often granted in short marriages when one party left work or education opportunities to have or care for a child.
And likewise, in the case of a 20 year marriage where each spouse has an adequate independent source of income, no maintenance will be awarded. Other states vary considerably. Texas and Georgia are states where maintenance can be bared by infidelity and limited to a maximum of $2,300.00 for just 4 years. California and Washington on the other hand specifically bar consideration of misdeeds and there is no limit whatsoever to awards.
Modification of an award can happen at any time, unless there is a specific agreement against modification.
If circumstances of either party substantially change, then an award can be shortened, lengthened, increased or decreased. Again, for those interested, you can see the law on modification at RCW 26.09.170.
Taxation of spousal maintenance will change starting January 1, 2019. Until that date, the person paying maintenance may deduct the payments from income subject to taxation and the receiving person will pay income tax on the payment. After January 1, 2019, those rules flip, such that the person making the payment will pay taxes on the payment and the receiving party will get the money tax free.
Generally, it is thought that the change was accomplished to subject more income to taxation at a higher bracket. In other words, the government was losing out on money so now everyone suffers. If you already have a maintenance order then you will not be affected, even after the new rules go into effect on January 1, 2019. Here’s a link to the current IRS booklet on Divorce Taxation, Publication 504, Divorced or Separated Individuals.
Payments can be made as agreed by the parties, either directly from one party to the other or through the Washington State Support Registry or even through the clerk of court. When one party fails to pay, the other party may petition the court to debit future benefits such as retirement pay or really any future payout. Spousal maintenance cannot usually be discharged through bankruptcy. Here’s a link to the law on how and where to pay maintenance: RCW 29.09.120.