Washington Appeals Court Upholds 54-Month Spousal Maintenance Award

Washington spousal maintenance is intended to support a spouse until they are able to support themselves.  The trial court’s primary consideration is the economic situations of the parties after the divorce. Courts must consider the factors set forth in RCW, but those factors are not exclusive. The factors include the financial resources of the spouse seeking maintenance, the time needed for the spouse to obtain sufficient education to find appropriate employment, the standard of living during the marriage, the length of the marriage, the age, physical condition, and financial obligations of the spouse seeking maintenance, the ability of the other spouse to meet their own needs and financial obligations in addition to those of the spouse seeking maintenance.  The trial court does not have to make specific findings of fact for each of the factors.  A maintenance award must be just, and a court abuses its discretion if it does not base maintenance on a fair consideration of the factors.  A wife recently challenged an award of spousal maintenance, arguing the trial court abused its discretion.

According to the appeals court’s unpublished opinion, the parties each finished college with a bachelor’s degree in 1992 and got married in 1994.  They moved several times and lived in multiple states before and after the marriage.  They agreed the wife would stay home and care for the children, but she did teach fitness classes when she could get childcare.

The wife started experiencing health issues shortly after they moved to Arizona in 2000 or 2001, affecting her ability to work.  They moved to Washington in 2006 or 2007.  She eventually started teaching yoga and Pilates.  She started a business offering yoga classes, massage, and certain merchandise in 2010.  She cut back on teaching after having what she believed was a Transient Ischemic Attack, though she was not formally diagnosed. She closed the business center at the end of 2017 as the result of a rent increase. She was in three car accidents in the following two years, causing her constant back and hip pain, issues with balance, shoulder pain, and PTSD.

The parties separated in July 2019. They sold their home and divided the net proceeds equally.  The wife moved to Montana.

Both parties were 51 years old.  The wife had not earned any income since 2017 and had not earned sufficient credits to qualify for social security.  The husband had earned over $100,000 per year since 2011, had a 401(k), and qualified for social security.

The wife filed for divorce, seeking an equitable division of property and debts at 60/40, 15 years spousal maintenance, and attorney fees and costs. Pursuant to an agreed temporary order, the husband paid 50% of his net monthly income as spousal support, half the loan and insurance on the vehicle the wife used, and medical and life insurance for both parties.  The parties were responsible for their own future debts.  The trial court also subsequently ordered an equal split of the husband’s annual bonus.

The husband, the wife, and the wife’s counselor testified at the trial.

The wife testified she wanted to obtain education to support herself.  She also testified she had been accepted to two programs: a four-year online master of science in clinical mental health counseling that she expected would allow her to earn $35,000 to $50,000 and a two-year certification in biophysics that she thought would allow her to earn $20,000 to $30,000.  She also testified it would be easier to get work as a clinical counselor, but said she would base her decision on which program to pursue on the amount of maintenance she received.

Her counselor testified the wife would excel in full-time school and would be able to work full-time.

The court awarded the wife 55% of the marital assets and an additional $35,000 from the net proceeds from the sale of the house, and 55% of the husband’s 401(k) account.  The court awarded her $3,000 per month in spousal maintenance for 54 months, finding there was not sufficient evidence under the factors in RCW 26.09.090 that she needed 15 years of spousal maintenance to put her in the position to support herself.  The court also awarded her 35% of the net bonuses the husband would receive until the maintenance terminates.  The court considered the fact the husband had been paying the bills and 50% of his net income in spousal maintenance pursuant to the temporary order.  The court also awarded the wife $4,500 in attorney fees and costs.

The wife appealed, arguing the trial court abused its discretion because it considered only how long it would take her to get an education and enter the workforce.

The appeals court noted that the record showed the trial court considered all of the statutory factors in RCW 26.09.090(1). The trial court considered the 55% of the marital assets it awarded to the wife, totaling more than $500,000.  It also considered how long it would take the wife to complete the Master’s degree and obtain employment.  The appeals court noted the maintenance would end soon after she was expected to graduate, but the court also considered the maintenance payments the husband had been making under the temporary order.  The court recognized how long the marriage was, the standard of living established during the marriage, and the husband’s ability to meet his own financial obligations.  The appeals court pointed out that the wife had been awarded a larger share of the marital assets and $3,000 in monthly maintenance tax free for 54 months.  The appeals court also noted the husband’s income was taxable.  The trial court also considered the wife’s age and health, noting there was insufficient evidence her current health prevented her from working full time.

The appeals court held there was no abuse of discretion in the maintenance award because the trial court had considered all of the statutory factors and had broad discretion.

The wife argued that Washington courts have rejected the theory maintenance is rehabilitative and the trial court abused its discretion when it limited the award to 54 months.  The appeals court noted the record showed the wife was able to become self-supporting.  Nothing in the record showed her health issues kept her from working full time or that she would not have the necessary job skills after she finished her degree.  The appeals court concluded there was no abuse of discretion in the trial court limiting the maintenance award to 54 months.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s maintenance award, property division, and attorney fees.

As this case shows, spousal maintenance can be a contentious issue.  If you are facing a divorce and anticipate seeking or opposing spousal maintenance, an experienced Washington family law attorney can help.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up a consultation.


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