The Facts on Alimony in Washington

It is difficult to navigate the many parts of divorce. If you are going through a divorce in the state of Washington, you probably have questions about the many aspects of alimony described below… 

What is Alimony?

Maintenance, spousal support, and alimony all refer to payments made from one spouse to another as a way to help reduce the financial hardships of a  divorce. 

The intention of alimony is to assist a financially dependent spouse maintain a lifestyle that is similar to the one he or she had during the marriage. As some movies and TV shows would lead you to believe, it iIt is not intended to serve as a way to punish higher-earning spouses. 

Either spouse may request support from the other, despite the reason for the end of the marriage. 

  • It is also not necessary to involve the courts in this process. Many couples navigating the divorce process reach an agreement based on the length and amount of the specific payments after they have reached an agreement. 

However, if a spouse requesting support cannot get the other one to agree, a court will have to step in, decide if support should be awarded, and help determine the terms of this support. 

Types of Alimony in Washington

In some cases, family court judges award various types of support or maintenance, especially if one spouse was financially dependent on the other. 

More often than not, these funds are offered in a rehabilitative sense. For instance, they help recipients achieve long-term ways to get to a place where they can support themselves and no longer need money from their exes. 

Notably, Washington state laws do not provide a promise or guarantee that support will be awarded during every divorce proceeding. Instead, every case is handled on an individual basis. 

The types of alimony are varied, and knowledge of these various types will help you  understand your specific case. These types include: 

  • Temporary

Upon the request of the spouse who is financially dependent, courts may grant an award for temporary maintenance. This award usually comes in the form of a monthly payment that aids the recipient spouse during his or her separation ( prior to the finalization of the divorce).

Family courts may order one party to pay the other short-term maintenance for a set period of time while he or she is in a “rehabilitative state.” This term does not refer to substance abuse treatment. Rather, it refers to a spouse completing vocational training, attending college to gain a degree that will allow him or her open up more job prospects to them, or stay at home with their children until they go to college. This alimony may be altered if a change in circumstances warrants it.

Sometimes referred to as long-term support, this support provides a spouse who is unable to be self-sufficient with long-term or permanent payments. Courts will only award this type of support in marriages that lasted longer than 25 years. 

Is There a Formula for Alimony in WA?

Washington does not use a mathematical formula to calculate the duration or amounts of alimony payments. 

Rather, the court will examine several factors when they determine the type, dollar amount, viability, and longevity of alimony payments. Here are some of the things your family court judge will examine when determining alimony: 

  • The duration of the marriage. 

The longer the marriage, the more likely it is that alimony will be awarded. 

  • The standard of living that was enjoyed during the marriage. 
  • The earnings and the earning capacity of the party asking for spousal support. 

For example, if one spouse was a stay-at-home parent throughout the marriage, support is necessary until that parent can get training or education and enter the workforce. 

  • The age and emotional, mental, and physical health of the spouse asking for support. 
  • The ability of the higher-income spouse to make good on his or her obligation to pay.
  • Child support 

If the recipient spouse also gets child support, alimony payments are likely to be reduced. Although child support is intended to be for minor kids, these monies reduce the expenses of the custodial parent. The home of the child must also be the home of the parent, and the food in the cupboards must feed both individuals. Courts are known for reducing alimony payments dollar-for-dollar, in accordance to the amount of child support. 

  • Any other factors deemed relevant by the court. 

Which Factors Affect Alimony?

Since there is no mathematical formula in the state of Washington, the amount and frequency of the payments is determined by a family court judge. 

In addition to the length of the marriage, the standard of living enjoyed by the parties during the marriage, and any financial obligations either party is facing, the court will thoroughly examine the sources of income of the requesting party. Therefore, they will look at community property, separate property, and the spouses’ ability to be self-sufficient. And on the flipside, the court examines the paying spouse’s ability to meet this obligation. 

As far as a long marriage, the dependent spouse may require some assistance before  becoming self-supporting. In other words, he or she may need some job training or education as a way to gain employment that will result in independence. 

Subsequently, the court will consider the time needed for the spouse to ask for support, complete training or educational requirements, and find a job that is a good fit for the spouse’s educational level, interests, and job skills. 

In addition to the above factors, a court may examine anything else that may have an impact on the spouses’ financial health after the divorce is final. As far as the way the funds will be paid (i.e., the payment structure), the courts use heavy discretion.  For instance, a court could order a spouse to pay funds on a temporary basis (i.e., a lump sum) , a permanent basis (i.e., periodic payments), or even a combination of the two. 

Can Alimony Be Changed?

As soon as the order for spousal support is set in place, it can be altered as long as there are payments due (unless the divorce agreement indicates otherwise). 

Generally, changes to the amounts of spousal support payments may only be made as long as they are pending. For instance, if the payor spouse gets a generous promotion after he or she has made payments for a year, the recipient of these payments may not ask the court to retroactively increase the amount of those support payments. 

Instead, the spouse who is receiving these payments may ask the court to raise the payments that will be made. Notably, the recipient spouse must show a substantial change in the circumstances of the other, in order to warrant this change. 

Alimony payments end when: 

  • Either spouse passes away. 
  • The recipient spouse gets remarried. 
  • The recipient spouse files for a new domestic partnership. 

How Long Does Alimony Last?

The length of time that your alimony payments will last is dependent on the outcome of your particular case. There is no singular answer for how long the judge will order your alimony payments to last (if it is awarded at all). 

However,  the biggest factor when determining how long support payments will be made is the length of the marriage. Long-term marriages that lasted 25 years or more  generally dictate that permanent support should be awarded. 

For instance, in one case (Marriage of Rockwell), the court decided that spouses in these kinds of marriages should be financially equal for the remainder of their lives. Therefore, the lesser-earning spouse will get support that is equal to his or her  former spouse’s financial situation. 

As far as marriages lasting less than 25 years, Washington courts follow the 1 to 3 Rule. Simply put, one year of support will be awarded for every three years of marriage. So if a marriage lasted for nine years, support payments would be made for three years. 

Bear in mind that all these decisions are at the discretion of the courts. Therefore, your case can and will vary. 

What if I Do Not Pay Alimony?

Alimony arrears occurs when a spouse does not make payments, which may be collected via mediation, wage garnishment, or even small claims court. If you fail to comply with a maintenance order issued by the court, you could receive a contempt-of-court charge. 

If You Are a State or City Employee in Washington, Take Note. 

In Washington, there is a special stipulation about public retirement benefits. 

Perhaps a recipient spouse owes alimony and has achieved retirement benefits as an employee of the State of Washington or a city in this state. If so, the recipient spouse may ask for these funds if: 

  • His or her alimony payment is more than fifteen days past due. 
  • The past-due amount is greater than $100. 

Perhaps an alimony payment is more than 15 days late, and the paying spouse asks for money from funds contributed to the state retirement program. If so, the result will be identical: The recipient spouse is eligible for these benefits. 

Does Adultery Affect Alimony?

The legal reasoning for a divorce is called “grounds.” In some states, spouses are permitted to argue in court about the reason for their split. Therefore, you can tell the judge why you would like to dissolve your marriage, and explain why the marital misconduct of the offending spouse was detrimental to the other. 

For instance, you can ask the judge to grant a divorce on the grounds that your spouse was abusive to you, suffered from drug addiction, or was unfaithful. The judge will then write these grounds into the court order, which may have an impact on other aspects of your dissolution (e.g., the maintenance or custody of children). 

Washington is NOT a fault state. Instead, it follows the trends we have seen in many states: a “no-fault divorce.” In other words, you are not required to provide specific reasoning about why your marriage did not survive. All a spouse  must do is state that his or her marriage is broken beyond repair, and .the judge will subsequently grant the divorce order. 

In Washington, family court judges have to prepare spousal support orders “with no regard to marital misconduct.” In other words, the court cannot consider any sort of fault or misconduct (e.g., adultery) when they are tasked with making decisions about alimony. 


Navigating the path of divorce is hard, and alimony is one of the more difficult aspects of this process. By arming yourself with some basic knowledge about alimony in Washington, you will feel more prepared. For specific questions about your case, consult with your legal team. 

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