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A woman approached me at a social gathering recently to ask me to help her resolve her confusion regarding a family law issue. She said that she had two friends get divorced under similar circumstances, but obtain very different results. She wondered whether laws varied from county to county or courthouse to courthouse, and if that was the reason for the variation in results. Her confusion reminded me of the misperception I have heard from many family law clients who come in expecting that they can get the same result as a friend did because their “circumstances are so similar”, or that they can avoid the result a friend obtained because “their circumstances are totally different”. The reality is that no two families are similar enough to guarantee similar results.

Family law is mostly governed by state laws. There are some laws in family law that come from the federal level (ex. DOMA, IRS Code, PKPA), but for most of the laws that impact most families we look to the Revised Code of Washington, the  Washington Administrative Code, and the case law from Washington’s appellate courts. There are court rules that vary from county to county, but these are mostly (if not entirely) procedural and should not (but may) affect the outcome of a case. In other words, whether your family law proceedings are handled in Spokane County, King County, Kitsap County or any other county in Washington shouldn’t make much of a difference. In reality, things do vary from county to county, courthouse to courthouse and decision-maker to decision-maker (commissioner or judge). Part of being a family law attorney (or rather any attorney that appears before a decision-maker on a regular basis) is knowing how the decision-maker(s) in your county is likely to rule on a particular issue. That way you are best able to advise your clients whether settlement or continued litigation is in their best interest.

But variations based on the decision-maker is not a complete answer to why there is so much variation in family law court decisions. It is more likely that the differences arise from one of two things. First, what may appear to be similar circumstances to someone looking at two families from the outside, may not be so similar when you take a closer look at the families’ finances, structure, and parenting histories. For example while two divorcing families’ may live in the same neighborhood and drive similar vehicles, their debt to income ratios and retirement savings may look entirely different. In other words, the similar families you see, may not be so similar upon further investigation.

After separation, many people want to discuss with their lawyers some of the immediate issues that need resolution: temporary child support, temporary parenting schedules, and who gets to live in the house. As part of these discussions (especially the one regarding which spouse gets to live in the home), they also want to talk about how to divide the household furniture (both during the temporary phase, and the final division). They want to know whether they can take the bedroom set to furnish their bedroom at their new apartment, or whether they can keep the kids’ beds.

In many cases, we encourage our clients to sort these issues out with the other party directly. (We would never encourage this in cases where allegations of domestic violence are at issue whether our client is the accused or the victim/accuser.) The reality is, we know that in many cases the furniture being argued over is not worth spending your legal fees on. The court will often attribute a value to the furniture based on what the furniture could be sold for at a garage sale. This means that many of the things you want to fight over will be worth just pennies on the dollar. Furthermore, the court will often look favorably on the party that is willing to negotiate regarding the small assets and not waste the parties’ resources (and the court’s time) on low-value items.

As such, we often encourage separated spouses to figure these things out based on necessity. For example, the spouse moving out of the family home will often take a guest room bedroom set for their new master bedroom. The party who has the kids the majority of the time often takes the kids furniture. Also, in many cases the parties both have items that were purchased to meet their specific needs and it often makes the most sense for that party to take these items with them (or keep them at the house as the case may be).

Washington is a no-fault-divorce state. This means that assigning blame, and/or proving that one spouse or the other is at fault for the marriage failing, is not necessary. This comes as a surprise to some people who come into our office to consult regarding the end of their marriage. Some are disappointed to learn that their spouse is not going to be punished by the court for his or her marriage-ending behavior. While we empathize with the hurt and sense of injustice our clients feel, we maintain our focus on the issues that will matter most in our clients’ cases.

Instead of requiring that one party be ordered at fault, in our state it is only required that one spouse state that the marriage is irretrievably broken, and ask the court to dissolve the union.

There are limited circumstances when the court will want to know about the behavior of one or both of the spouses that led to the failure of the marriage. For example, if the failure was due to domestic violence the court will do what it can to protect the victim and/or any children involved. Or, if the failure was due to a wasting of financial resources by one spouse, the court may want to consider this when determining whether to enter temporary orders restricting use of community financial resources. In other words, behavior during marriage is not irrelevant to the divorce process, but it is also not necessarily determinative of the outcome.

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