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Articles Posted in Family Law

A court hearing a Washington divorce case must distribute all of the parties’ property. The parties’ interest in the property must be “definitely and finally determined.” A wife recently challenged the property division in her divorce decree, arguing that the tenancy in common ownership of the property did not result in a timely distribution of the property.

The parties had been married about 14 years when the wife petitioned for divorce.  The court awarded full custody of both children to the father.  The court did not order child support, but the father received SSDI benefits for the children, both of whom have disabilities.

The wife testified that she was disabled at the time of the trial.  She worked part-time as a substitute teacher and also received SSI benefits.

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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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Domestic violence can affect all aspects of family life, including child custody.  Pursuant to RCW 26.09.191(1)(c), a final parenting plan cannot require the parents to engage in mutual decision-making where the court finds a parent engaged in a history of domestic violence.  A mother recently appealed a court order granting the father sole decision-making after the court found he had a history of domestic violence.

A few days after the father filed for divorce, the mother called 911 and reported a domestic assault.  The father told police she had attacked him.  The mother was arrested and a criminal no-contact order was issued to prevent her from contacting the father or going to the family home.  The father also obtained a temporary restraining order preventing her from contacting him or their children.

Each party petitioned for a domestic violence protection order (DVPO) as part of the divorce proceeding.  The court reissued the father’s temporary restraining order, but removed the children from it.  It also reissued the mother’s temporary DVPO.  The court granted the mother weekend residential time with the children and appointed a guardian ad litem.

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Parents have a liberty interest in their fundamental right to autonomy in raising their children.  Courts must therefore give weight to a parent’s decision to deny visitation to the child’s grandparents. A court can only order Washington grandparent visitation over the objection of a fit parent if the grandparent shows that denying visitation would be harmful to the child.  A grandmother and stepgrandfather recently challenged a court’s denial of their petition for visitation.

In July 2015, the mother moved with the children to Washington where her mother and stepfather lived from Las Vegas.  The mother moved with the children to Oregon the following November.  The father filed for divorce in June 2016.  The mother brought the children back to Washington to stay with her mother and stepfather. She died of suicide that October.

The father did not immediately take the children.  According to the appeals court’s opinion, he said he needed help taking care of things after the mother’s death.  He also said the children were in school in Walla Walla, and he was focused on getting transferred to the Air Force Base in Spokane.

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When parents separate, there often comes a time when one of them wants to move.  Relocation can cause issues with co-parenting.  Under Washington family law, when a custodial parent wants to move with the child, there is a rebuttable presumption the move will be allowed.  The other parent may rebut the presumption by showing the benefit of the move is outweighed by its detrimental effect, based on several factors.  Those factors include: the child’s relationship with each parent and other significant people in their life; any agreement between the parties; which relationship it would be more detrimental to disrupt; whether there are restrictions under RCW 26.09.191; the reasons for each parent’s position and whether they are requesting or opposing the relocation in good faith; how the relocation would affect the child’s development; the resources and opportunities available in the current and proposed locations; ways to continue the child’s relationship and access to the other parent; alternatives to relocation; and the financial impact and logistics of relocating or not relocating.

In a recent case, a mother challenged the parenting plan entered by the court.   The couple had lived together with the father’s mother and the mother and child continued to live there after they separated.  The mother subsequently petitioned for a parenting plan and asked to move from Spokane to Medical Lake, where her boyfriend lived.

The trial court considered the factors in RCW 26.09.187.  Under Washington family law, a court must consider certain factors when determining the parenting plan.  These factors include the child’s relationship with each parent, past and potential future parenting performance, the child’s needs and emotional development, the child’s relationship with others, his environment, and his activities, the wishes of the parents and of the child if he is mature enough to express a reason and an independent preference, and the parents’ employment schedules.  RCW 26.09.187.

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Washington family law recognizes the Committed Intimate Relationship (CIR) doctrine, which was judicially created to resolve the property distribution issues of unmarried couples who had acquired property that would have been community property if they had been married.  If a court determines there was a CIR, the court must make a just and equitable distribution of the community-like property acquired during the CIR.

A party must file a petition to distribute property acquired during a CIR within three years of the date the CIR ends.  In a recent case, a mother challenged the property distribution, arguing it was unjust and inequitable and that the father had filed the petition after the statute of limitations had passed.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the couple started dating in 2004 and moved in together in 2005.  In 2011, a house was purchased in the mother’s name with only her name on the mortgage.  In 2012, the couple’s son was born. In 2016, the mother went to Mexico with the son.  According to the mother, the locks on the house were changed when she got back.

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Under Washington family law, spousal maintenance may generally only be modified upon a “substantial change in circumstances.” RCW 26.09.170.  In considering whether a substantial change has occurred, the court should consider the spouse’s ability to pay in relation to the other spouse’s financial need.  A substantial change must not have been contemplated when the original order was issued.  A former wife recently challenged modification of the spousal maintenance her former husband was ordered to pay following loss of his job and reemployment.

At the time of the divorce in September 2017, the court found the husband was earning more than $10,000 per month net. The wife had retired after working for the armed forces for 40 years, and was unable to work due to health issues.  Her net income was more than $4,000 per month.  The court ordered the husband to pay the wife $3000 per month in spousal maintenance and noted it intended to equalize their standards of living.

The husband lost his job in December.  He moved to suspend his spousal maintenance in February.  The commissioner granted his motion and ordered him to notify the wife when he obtained employment.  The husband got a job as a chief engineer in April but failed to notify the wife until July.

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Sadly, suspicions or allegations of abuse sometimes arise in Washington custody cases.  Although there may be circumstances where a party makes an allegation in an attempt to affect the custody case, some parents have sincere concerns about their children.  A father recently challenged an order that he pay the mother’s attorney fees related to his motion to modify the parenting plan after he sought a protective order against the mother.

The father claimed he noticed injuries on the child after he picked her up from the mother’s home in June 2017.  He said he asked her about them, and she said words in her native language that translated to “Ouwie,” “Hit,” and “Mama.”  He took the child to the doctor and the doctor reported finding bruising with small abrasions on her feet and linear areas of bruising on her upper inner forearm.  The doctor contacted CPS.

The father claimed he noticed more bruising after picking the child up a few days later.  He took her back to the doctor and a nurse practitioner examined her and noted she had bruising on her right periorbital area and healing bruising and abrasions on the top of her feet.  The nurse practitioner called CPS, and they recommended calling the police and seeking a protective order.  The nurse practitioner called the father and recommended he seek a protective order and not return the child to the mother.

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When a couple reaches an agreement regarding their divorce, it is not uncommon to agree that any disputes regarding the agreement are subject to arbitration. Generally, Washington law favors arbitration. In a recent case, however, a husband challenged a court’s decision not to refer a matter to arbitration.

The couple established a business during their marriage.  The husband ran the business and the wife raised their children.  The husband had developed a gambling compulsion and lost $185,000 in the year before the divorce.

The wife filed for divorce and asked for a restraining order keeping the husband from conducting the business’s finances.  The court granted the wife full authority to run the business “in a fiscally responsible manner.”

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Courts handling Washington child custody cases should base their determinations regarding parental responsibilities on the best interests of the child.  The court has broad discretion in determining the parenting plan.  However, the court must place restrictions on a parent’s decision-making if it finds he or she has a history of domestic violence.

A Washington appeals court recently reversed a parenting plan that allowed joint decision-making despite a history of domestic violence.  The parents divorced in 2014.  The final parenting plan required the father to meet with a doctor to address domestic violence issues before his summer residential time with the children.  The parenting plan also required him to get a certified evaluation regarding domestic violence and follow any treatment recommendations.

The plan also awarded the mother sole decision-making until the court heard from the domestic violence counselor or evaluator.  The order provided that there would be joint decision-making after the father met the requirements regarding domestic violence.

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