Washington spousal maintenance generally ends if the spouse receiving then maintenance remarries. In some cases, however, the parties may agree or the divorce decree may provide that maintenance continue beyond remarriage. In a recent unpublished case, a former husband challenged a court order that maintenance continue even after his wife’s remarriage.
The parties’ divorce was finalized in 2018. The decree provided that the husband would pay the wife spousal maintenance for 10 years. The maintenance provision was on a mandatory pattern form used between 2016 and 2019. Under the termination section, it stated that maintenance would end on the death of either spouse or the remarriage or registration of a new domestic partnership of the spouse receiving maintenance unless a different date or event was stated below. Directly below, it stated, “The husband shall pay maintenance for 10 years.”
The wife had been a stay-at-home mother during her marriage to the husband and was not currently employed. The husband earned about $140,000. The wife married someone earning approximately $215,000 per year in 2019.
The husband pursued a modification based on the wife’s remarriage and relocation to Oregon with the children. The trial court denied the request, finding that the spousal maintenance provision in the decree survived the wife’s remarriage. The court found the language was “clear and unequivocal” in showing the intent for the maintenance to remain in effect for a set time including after remarriage.
The trial court found the husband knew or should have known that the wife could get married again because the decree specifically mentioned remarriage in the spousal maintenance provision. The trial court found modification was not justified by the new spouse’s higher income because it was “within the sphere of possible contemplation at the time of the dissolution.”
The husband appealed. He argued the spousal maintenance provision in the decree misstated the law.
The appeals court found there was no ambiguity in the language of the decree so no extrinsic evidence was considered to interpret it. The appeals court considered the “objective manifestations of the agreement” instead of the parties’ subjective intent.
The decree expressly stated spousal maintenance would stop with either party’s death or the wife’s remarriage unless a different date was stated below. The “Date” box immediately below was checked, followed by language that the husband would pay maintenance for 10 years and a due date for the final payment. The appeals court found the intent was clearly that the maintenance payments would continue for 10 years and would not end on death or remarriage.
The appeals court noted there is a presumption that a spousal maintenance obligation terminate on the death of either party or remarriage or registered domestic partnership of the party receiving the maintenance, unless otherwise provided in the decree or agreed in writing. RCW 26.09.170(2).
The appeals court concluded that the maintenance provision clearly stated it would end after 10 years and not remarriage or death. The appeals court found this was a “’clear manifestation of intent’ to waive the statutory presumption.” The presumption therefore did not apply because the parties had expressly agreed otherwise. The provision did not misstate the law.
The husband also argued the trial court erred in finding there was not a substantial change in circumstances justifying a modification. Spousal maintenance may be modified if a party shows there has been a substantial change of circumstances that was not in the parties’ contemplation when the decree was entered.
The appeals court agreed with the trial court that the wife’s remarriage was within the contemplation of the parties. The appeals court also noted, however, that a substantial change in circumstances in the context of a spousal maintenance refers to financial necessities and abilities. The maintenance award was based on the wife’s total lack of income as a stay-at-home mother. Her new spouse’s income provided financial resources that she did not have when the parties divorced. The trial court had dismissed the spouse’s income as justification for modification because it was tied to the possibility the wife would remarry and had not exercised discretion in considering whether the amount of the spouse’s income was within the contemplation of the parties. The appeals court found the trial court abused its discretion in not exercising its discretion to determine if the income was a substantial change.
The appeals court reversed the denial of the petition to modify and remanded the case to the trial court.
This case shows that it may be possible to modify spousal maintenance even if the decree provides that maintenance will continue for a set amount of time. Whether you are seeking or opposing a modification, a skilled Washington divorce attorney can help. Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation.