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Modifying Washington State Spousal Maintenance

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.

The husband lost his job soon after the parties entered the final dissolution decree.  He kept paying the monthly maintenance while he looked for another job.  A couple of weeks after his severance payments stopped, he found another job that paid about $16,250 per month plus a discretionary annual bonus of up to 20%.

The husband petitioned for a modification of the maintenance based on his reduced income.  The wife argued she could not earn an income and would be unable to pay her expenses. She had given up her career as a CPA to work in the home, and she argued her license was not valid and she would need substantial education and retraining to get back into that line of work.  She also claimed alcohol use disorder and other medical issues made it difficult for her to get a job.  She further claimed she had to be home to provide care for her adult daughter who had medical issues.

The trial court found the husband’s job change was a substantial change in circumstances.  The trial court found the wife still needed maintenance, but a reduction would be appropriate in light of the husband’s reduced income.  The court modified the maintenance to $3,000 per month until the husband reached 60 and the $1,500 until he turned 67, retroactive to the date he found a new job and filed the petition for modification.

The wife appealed, arguing the trial court’s finding the husband’s income had been reduced by “about half” was not supported by substantial evidence. She also argued that the trial court abused its discretion and set the maintenance at an unjust and arbitrary amount.

A court abuses its discretion if it awards maintenance without fair consideration of the statutory factors, but it does not have to make specific factual findings on each factor.  A maintenance award must be just in light of the relevant factors.  Maintenance may be modified when there has been a substantial change in circumstances that was not contemplated in the decree.  If a modification is warranted, the court must consider the same factors in setting the amount and duration as would be required in an original dissolution.

The husband had argued his income had decreased from 2018 to 2019 by about 51 or 52 percent.  The wife argued those numbers misrepresented the circumstances because his 2018 income was inflated by the severance package and associated payouts. The trial court found the husband “received severance and some cash payouts” when he lost his job.  The trial court noted that he may be able to receive a 20% bonus, but had not done so yet. The trial court found his income had “decreased by about half from his prior salary. . .”  The appeals court found the substantial evidence supported this finding.

The wife argued the amount of the modification was arbitrary.  The appeals court found, however, the trial court had considered the relevant factors.  There had been evidence of both spouses’ financial circumstances and the length of the marriage.  The court had heard evidence of the wife’s physical and emotional condition and her ability to obtain employment.  There was also evidence of the husband’s ability to pay and the property division.

The trial court found the wife still needed maintenance and probably would until retirement age, but that it “would be inequitable” to the husband to keep it at the same amount in light of his decreased income.  The court did not accept the husband’s argument that he could only pay $2,000 per month and set the maintenance at $3,000 to be reduced to $1,500 when he turned 60.  The trial court found this award would “achieve equity. . .”  The wife did not show the modification was arbitrary or unjust.

The appeals court found the modification was equitable and affirmed the trial court’s order.

Spousal maintenance can be a contentious issue.  Whether you are seeking or opposing maintenance in a divorce or a modification, you need a skilled Washington family attorney on your side.  Call (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC.

 

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