Wife Denied Modification of Washington Spousal Maintenance

A former spouse seeking modification of Washington spousal maintenance must generally show a substantial change in circumstances.  A former wife recently challenged the denial of her request for modification.

According to the appeals court’s unpublished opinion, the parties married in 1991 and divorced in 2014.  The wife was a stay-at-home parent. The husband co-owned two businesses with a partner and had an annual income averaging $598,244 in the three years before the divorce.

The wife sought spousal maintenance.  According to a vocational evaluation, she had not worked in over 21 years and needed retraining.  It described the effect her multiple chronic medical conditions had on her ability to work.  She was qualified for low or unskilled positions, which were generally not appropriate due to her balance and lower back issues. Her medical issues limited the training and work she could do and could require time off beyond the norm. The evaluator also noted the importance of the wife working for an employer large enough to be subject to Family Medical Leave.

The court ordered the husband to pay significant monthly spousal maintenance terminating in November 2021. It also ordered additional maintenance of $3,700 per month until November 2020 or until a total of $374,000 was paid.  The court’s stated reasons for maintenance were: the time the wife needed for sufficient education or training, the length of the marriage, the husband’s ability to meet his own needs and obligations while meeting those of the wife, the parties’ age, physical and emotional condition, and financial obligations, each party’s past, present and future earning or economic capacity, their standard of living after the divorce, and the husband’s substantial income from one of the businesses.

The wife sought modification in 2020, alleging two substantial changes of circumstances: worsening of her health and an increase in the husband’s finances.

The commissioner granted the husband’s motion to dismiss and the wife then moved for revision.

The trial court noted the December 2014 findings specifically stated the husband had substantial income that would allow him to pay spousal maintenance.  The trial court also concluded his income had not increased to the point of constituting a substantial change.

The wife had significant health conditions when the parties divorced, and the trial court found unrealistic her claim the parties had not contemplated deterioration of her condition.  The trial court found there no substantial change in circumstances in the wife’s financial needs.

The trial court denied the wife’s motion for revision and she appealed.

The wife argued the trial court applied the wrong standard in not considering the factors in RCW 26.09.090. Pursuant to RCW 26.09.170, modification of spousal maintenance generally requires a showing of a substantial change in circumstances. RCW 26.09.090 provides that a court may grant spousal maintenance in amounts and for time periods the court deems just, without regard to misconduct, after it considers the relevant factors.

The appeals court noted the trial court does not have to consider the factors in determining whether to modify spousal maintenance.  The factors come into play when the court determines the amount and duration of the maintenance. Because the trial court found no substantial change in circumstances, it did not need to reach the factors in RCW 26.09.090.

The appeals court also found no abuse of discretion in the finding the husband’s income did not constitute a substantial change in circumstances. The parties knew he had substantial income that fluctuated when they divorced.  The wife argued his income increased, but the record did not support that position.  The husband’s average annual income between 2015 to 2019 actually decreased from his average annual income for the three years before the divorce.

The appeals court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s finding of no substantial change in the husband’s ability to pay support.

The wife also argued the trial court abused its discretion when it found no substantial change based on her new and worsening medical conditions. She argued the trial court ignored evidence of new health problems, but the court noted it had reviewed all of the submitted materials, the findings of fact and conclusions of law, and the decree.  The court also noted it did not seem realistic the parties had not contemplated the wife’s known health conditions could worsen.

The wife also argued that her conditions had worsened beyond what was contemplated.  She asserted that the vocational evaluation had contemplated she could work, but she was unable to do so because of her new medical conditions.

The appeals court rejected the wife’s argument the trial court could only determine what the parties contemplated if it had been stated in the findings of fact.  The findings of fact had stated the court based maintenance on the wife’s “age, physical and emotional condition and financial obligations. . .” and the parties’ earning capacity.

The appeals court acknowledged the wife’s ability to work was limited by her health conditions.  The vocational evaluation indicated she would need retraining to be competitive for employment.  She may need time off from training or work, and it was therefore important for her to be employed by an employer subject to Family Medical Leave requirements.  The appeals court found it reasonable for the trial court to conclude the parties contemplated her health issues worsening.  The appeals court noted the vocational evaluation gave a “bleak outlook” on her ability to obtain and maintain regular employment.

The wife also argued her expenses had surpassed her income because she sold certain income-producing assets to buy a condo.  The appeals court agreed with the trial court that this was not a substantial change in circumstances but was instead a choice.  The appeals court pointed out she had not shown a substantial change in circumstances and now argued the court should equalize the parties’ income by awarding maintenance.  The appeals court noted the trial court does not have to equalize the parties’ positions permanently.  The wife had agreed with the proposed maintenance and property division instead of going to trial.  Thus, the issue of equalization was not an issue in the appeal, only whether the trial court abused its discretion in concluding the wife did not show a substantial change of circumstances.

The appeals court found no abuse of discretion by the trial court and affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

Although the wife in this case was unable to establish a substantial change in circumstances, whether a court grants a modification is highly fact-specific.  If you believe there has been a substantial change in circumstances that would warrant a modification of a spousal maintenance order, a knowledgeable Washington spousal maintenance attorney can help.  Set up a consultation with Blair & Kim, PLLC, by calling (206) 622-6562.

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