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Articles Posted in Divorce

Unless an agreement or the divorce decree provides otherwise,  a Washington spousal maintenance obligation generally ends when the party receiving it remarries or registers a new domestic partnership or when either party dies.  RCW 26.09.170(2).  Generally, the court may only modify a maintenance order if there is a substantial change in circumstances.  RCW 26.09.170(1). Washington law also allow a divorce decree to preclude or limit modification of a maintenance provision if the parties agreed to do so in the separation agreement.  RCW 26.09.070(7).  A court does not have the authority to modify such a provision.

In a recent unpublished case, an ex-husband appealed a court order terminating the spousal maintenance he received.  The parties’ divorce decree in 2007 was based on a separation agreement that required the wife to pay the husband spousal maintenance. The agreement provided that the spousal maintenance would terminate when the husband remarried or died. It stated the spousal maintenance obligation was otherwise “non-modifiable” except in the case of the wife’s disability.

The wife sought to terminate the maintenance in 2019, alleging the husband had remarried.  She claimed she had seen a news article indicating the husband was married to another woman.

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A parent may be held in contempt if they fail to comply with a Washington parenting plan. A parent may move for contempt if the other parent prevents visitation, does not return the child from visitation, or fails to engage in joint decision-making.

In a recent case, a mother appealed a contempt order after a commissioner found she had failed to notify the father of dental and medical appointments. A parenting plan was entered when the parents divorced in 2014.  Pursuant to the parenting plan, the children would live with their mother in another state and come to Washington to visit their father for winter and summer vacations. Each parent was allowed to make day-to-day decisions and emergency healthcare decisions while the children were with them, but nonemergency health care decisions were to be made through joint decision-making.

The father alleged the mother had taken the children to the dentist without notifying him.  The mother said she probably had notified him, but that she could have forgotten to do so.  The father wanted to engage in joint decision-making and participate in the appointments remotely.

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Washington, unlike some states, recognizes “committed intimate relationships.” Courts may consider a number of factors, including the parties’ intent, the length and purpose of the relationship, whether the parties continuously lived together, and whether the parties pooled their resources.  When a couple acquires property during a committed intimate relationship, it is presumed to be community property.  The date a committed intimate relationship began can therefore be very significant in a property distribution during a Washington divorce.  A husband recently challenged a court’s finding he and the wife were in a committed intimate relationship when a house was purchased.

The parties started dating in 2008 and the wife moved in with the husband in April 2009. The husband paid the rent and bills, and the wife helped with food and other things.  She also had furniture and two vehicles.  They maintained separate finances.

They bought a house together in March 2010.  The wife said they saved money because she knew the builder and her husband helped them. She testified they decided to put the title and loan in the husband’s name because they weren’t married yet.  She said the husband told her they would refinance after they got married.  The husband paid the mortgage, and the wife said he “was adamant that [the mortgage payments] come from his sole, own checking account.”

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Before awarding Washington spousal maintenance, a court must consider certain factors. Those factors include the financial resources of the spouse requesting maintenance; the time it would take that spouse to get the necessary education or training to find appropriate employment; that spouse’s age, physical and emotion conditions, and financial obligations; the established standard of living; the length of the marriage; and the ability of the other spouse to meet their own financial needs and obligations and those of the requesting spouse. RCW 26.09.090(1).

A wife recently challenged a modification of her spousal maintenance after the husband lost his job.  The parties were married for nearly 31 years before they divorced in 2017.  The husband had reached the level of senior vice president in his career and was earning a gross income of about $20,600 per month plus a discretionary annual bonus of up to half his salary. Their children were adults at the time of the divorce.

The parties agreed to an equal asset division. The wife received the home and some cash and retirement assets, and the husband kept most of the liquid assets.  They agreed the husband would pay $6,000 per month in spousal maintenance for five years until he turned 60.  He would then pay the wife $3,000 per month until he turned 67.  The agreement was intended to give the parties equal financial circumstances until they both could access retirement funds without penalties.

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The court must characterize property as community or separate when distributing property in a Washington divorce. Character is generally determined when the property is acquired.  When a spouse acquires property before the marriage, that property is presumed to be separate property unless there is sufficient evidence of an intent to change it to community property.  A wife recently challenged a court’s determination that property remained separate after a conveyance to the marital community.

Before the parties married, the husband moved into the home the wife owned with her previous partner.

The husband owned property on Aldergrove with two rental units.  He also owned a property on Yew Street.  After the marriage, the parties rented the Aldergrove units and the Yew Street property and deposited the proceeds into a marital community joint bank account.

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A trial court in a Washington divorce generally has broad discretion in the disposition of property and debts.  Once the court enters the dissolution decree, though, it generally may not modify the property division unless there are conditions justifying the reopening of a judgment.  The court may, however, correct clerical errors pursuant to CR 60(a). The court may not correct judicial errors, which involve “errors of substance.”

In a recent case, a husband challenged a court order that he argued changed the distribution of debt after he had moved for clarification of the original decree.

In his divorce petition, the husband had requested the debts be split equally and paid from the proceeds of the real property the parties owned together.  The trial court awarded the husband the landscaping business along with its premises, equipment, and debt.  The court awarded the wife $38,000 in spousal maintenance. The “Petitioner’s Debt” section of the decree stated the husband pay the 16 listed debts.  Next to a mortgage debt and accounts in the husband’s name, the court wrote 100%.  The court did not write any percentage next to two items on the list.  The rest of the items had 50% written by them.

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Courts in Washington divorce cases must make an equitable and just distribution of the couple’s property and liabilities.  In some cases where one spouse owes the other, spousal maintenance or alimony may be used to achieve an equitable and just distribution.  In a recent case, a husband challenged the award of spousal maintenance to pay off his share of the community debt.

The evidence showed the wife had a home worth about $500,000 with a mortgage and about $400,000 in other assets at the time of the marriage.  A prenuptial agreement provided that the husband had no interest in the home. The husband had a checking account with a small balance and a vehicle.  He also had an interest in a limited liability company he established and shares of another company, with values listed as “unknown.” He owed $8,000 on the vehicle, $36,000 in back taxes, and $55,000 on a promissory note to the wife.  The wife’s assets were depleted during the marriage and the couple accrued significant community debt in the wife’s name.

In accordance with the prenuptial agreement, the trial court awarded the home to the wife.  It also ordered the husband to repay the promissory note.  The trial court found a BMW in the wife’s name was community property.  In her petition, the wife listed the vehicle and the debt on it as property to be awarded to the husband.  She ultimately changed that position, partly because the husband had not obtained separate financing.  The trial court awarded the vehicle to the wife, noting the husband had surrendered his driver’s license and therefore would not be allowed to drive for a significant while.

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In a Washington divorce case, a disability allowance is treated differently depending on whether it replaces future lost wages or a standard retirement pension.  This distinction will determine if the allowance is considered separate or community property. In a recent case, an ex-wife challenged the characterization of her ex-husband’s disability allowance.

The ex-husband began working for a fire department in 1963.  The couple married in 1991.  The ex-husband was injured on the job and determined to be physically unable to perform his job duties.  He began receiving a monthly allowance of about 60% of his salary.

The ex-husband brought most of the assets to the marriage, but the couple signed a community property agreement that purported to transfer all separate property to community property.

Even when the parties to a Washington divorce agree that one spouse should pay spousal maintenance to the other, they may not agree to the amount or duration of that maintenance.  In making determinations regarding maintenance, courts should consider certain factors and make specific findings.  A husband successfully challenged the amount and duration of maintenance he was ordered to pay his former wife because the court had filed to fully address the required factors and make findings regarding the parties’ income.

The couple married in 1987.  The wife stayed home and cared for the children.  The husband retired from the Marine Corps at the age of 43 in 2006 and began working as a truck driver.  The couple separated in 2012 and the husband filed for divorce in 2015.  He agreed he would pay maintenance to the wife.

On a monthly basis, the husband received wages, significant overtime earnings, military disability, and military retirement. In addition to his military retirement, the husband had a retirement account with his current employer and a 401k.  He claimed $3,995 in monthly expenses.  The wife declared she had no income and $3,566 in expenses each month.

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Once a Washington divorce decree is issued, a maintenance award can only be modified by the court when the party seeking the modification shows a substantial change in circumstances.  A fact unknown to the trial court or an unanticipated fact that arises after the decree is entered may constitute a substantial change in circumstances.  In a case involving spousal maintenance, commonly referred to as “alimony,” a substantial change may involve a significant increase or decrease in income.  In a recent case, the ex-wife sought to continue maintenance when her ex-husband decided not to retire at the time they had previously expected him to do so.

The divorce decree required the husband to pay spousal maintenance in the amount of $1100 per month for 48 months.  The wife sought to extend the maintenance four years later.  She alleged there was a substantial change in circumstances because the husband had not retired from the military as she had expected.  If he had retired, she would have started receiving part of his retirement benefits when the maintenance payments stopped.  She provided an email from the husband in which he stated he would pay the maintenance “until [he] got out.” The husband told her he was not ready to retire in December 2016, and suggested he would not do so until 2019.  The wife requested the maintenance continue until the husband’s retirement. She also requested attorney fees in her reply declaration.

The commissioner denied the wife’s motion, finding no substantial change in circumstances.  The commissioner also granted the husband’s motion to strike the wife’s request for attorney’s fees and denied the request.

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