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.