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In a recent unpublished case, an ex-husband appealed a court order terminating the spousal maintenance he received.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.
The husband declared he was not married to the other woman, who he identified as his girlfriend. Due to the husband’s multiple serious health condition and reliance on his girlfriend for care, he stated they sometimes told healthcare providers she was his wife. He also declared the wife supported his relationship with the girlfriend. He said she had offered to amend the separation agreement so the maintenance would continue if the husband married the girlfriend.
The girlfriend’s declaration stated she was not married to the husband and had no plans to do so. She stated she had changed her last name so she would be allowed to be with him at his medical appointments. She stated that their family, friends, and others knew they were not married.
In her responsive declaration, the wife argued that, although the husband and girlfriend may not be legally married, they held themselves out as married. She stated the husband wore a wedding ring and the couple “enjoy[ed] all the benefits of being married.” She argued the maintenance should be terminated because the husband was receiving the benefits of marriage, not legally married.
The commissioner terminated the maintenance obligation, granting a modification under RCW 26.09.170(1). The commissioner found “it would be against public policy . . . to not terminate the maintenance . . .” where he was “married to [the girlfriend] in every other way.” The commissioner noted the girlfriend lived with the husband, used his last name, and held herself out as his wife.
The husband moved for revision, arguing the commissioner erred in modifying the maintenance requirement when the separation agreement provided that it was not modifiable except in certain circumstances.
The wife argued that provision of the agreement was void as against public policy. She also argued the husband was in a committed intimate relationship and the order should be affirmed on the ground of remarriage.
The superior court held it did not have the authority to modify the maintenance obligation under the terms of the agreement. The court did find, however, that the relationship was “essentially a marriage” and therefore denied the husband’s motion to revise the commissioner’s order. The husband appealed.
The husband argued the court erred in terminating the spousal maintenance when he and the girlfriend were not married. The appeals court noted that it was undisputed the couple had not entered into a civil marriage contract. They were not, therefore, married under the Washington marriage statutes. Although the superior court found the relationship was “essentially a marriage,” it was not actually a marriage under Washington law. The separation agreement and decree provided that the maintenance obligation only terminated upon the husband’s death or remarriage. Because he had not remarried, the trial court erred in terminating the obligation. The appeals court reversed the order terminating the spousal maintenance obligation.
This case shows that a court cannot terminate a spousal maintenance obligation based on remarriage when the recipient spouse has not entered into a legal marriage or registered domestic partnership, even if the court believes the relationship is “essentially a marriage” that has not been formalized just to avoid termination of the maintenance. If you are dealing with a spousal maintenance issue, you need the guidance of an experienced Washington spousal maintenance attorney. Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to schedule your consultation.