Articles Posted in Family Law

Many people consider their pets to be part of the family, but the law often treats pets as personal property.  In a recent case, a husband challenged court-ordered visitation with the dogs awarded to him in his divorce decree.

The parties, who had been married for about 27 years, had two dogs at the time of the divorce. They referred to the dogs as “[t]he babies” and regularly texted about them. When the wife moved out into a motor home, the dogs remained in the marital home with the husband.  The wife visited them several times a week.

The husband petitioned for legal separation at the end of August, 2018. In her answer, the wife asked the court to dissolve the marriage and requested at least 10 hours per week visitation with the dogs and the right of first refusal for their care.  She also asked that the parties split costs for the dogs. The commissioner’s temporary orders only ordered the wife to pay half of the dogs’ grooming and veterinary bills, but otherwise did not address the dogs.  She kept visiting them several times per week.

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A court must appoint a guardian ad litem when a party to an action is incapacitated and does not have a guardian.  RCW 4.08.060.  In In re Marriage of Gannon, the Washington Supreme Court held that a guardian or guardian ad litem may pursue a Washington divorce on behalf of an incompetent ward if it is in the ward’s best interests, noting that never allowing divorce to be pursued on behalf of the incompetent spouse would allow the competent spouse “absolute, final control over the marriage” and such a result was “not equitable.”  The trial court must hold a hearing to determine whether dissolution is in the ward’s best interest.

In a recent unpublished case, an appeals court considered whether the trial court properly granted a divorce.  According to the appeals court’s opinion, the parties married in 1989.  The husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2014. The parties started having arguments, including a physical altercation in 2016. The wife testified that she told the husband she was afraid he would kill her if she stayed with him. A neighbor testified the husband came to his house and said he could not go home because he was afraid he would be killed.  The neighbor testified the husband asked him to call the police.  The police arrested the wife.

The husband’s children tried to obtain a vulnerable adult protection order, but were unsuccessful. The wife requested a Guardian Ad Litem for her husband, stating she wanted to maintain their finances and control over his healthcare decisions.  The husband signed a durable power of attorney for healthcare and durable power of finances. He stated he wanted a divorce.

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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 court may order support for postsecondary educational expenses in a Washington child support order.  The court has discretion in determining if and for how long to order support.  The court must base its determination on the consideration of certain factors, including the child’s age, the child’s needs, the parties’ expectations while they were together, the child’s abilities, what type of education the child is pursuing, and the parent’s education, standard of living and resources.  The court should also consider how much support the parents’ would have provided if they stayed together.  The court is not, however, limited to the stated factors. RCW 26.19.090.

A father recently challenged a court’s denial of his request for postsecondary educational expenses for his younger daughter.  According to the appeals court’s unpublished opinion, the parties divorced in 2005.  They have two children together, 21 and 19 years old.  The child support order reserved the right to petition for postsecondary support as long as it was done before termination of support.  Postsecondary educational support was not ordered for the older child, but the father petitioned for postsecondary educational support for the younger child before she graduated high school. The mother did not join in the petition, arguing she was providing postsecondary educational support for the older child without help from the father.

The commissioner denied the father’s petition, finding the mother had contributed most of the support while the daughters were children and continued to support the older daughter while she was in college. The father moved for revision.

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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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