Your marriage is ending and the same worries and fears keep circling through your mind:
“Will I have enough money to keep the house?”
“How will I be able to make ends meet?”
“What will I do for health insurance?”
“How will I be able to pay my bills and save for retirement?”
In divorce, all of these fears are normal and have the very same thing in common:
When it comes to money and divorce, there's one issue that's more emotional, more stressful, causes more disagreements and is harder to resolve than any other.
Whether you call it spousal support, alimony or maintenance, coming to agreement on an amount of money that one ex-spouse will pay to the other to cover their expenses, while still having enough money left to cover their own, is difficult, to say the least.
And the topic of spousal support in Washington State is a complicated one.
In this post, we'll take a closer look at this complex and controversial topic. And shed some light on what a divorcing couple can do to come an alimony agreement they both find fair.
* Note: We’ll use the terms maintenance, alimony, and spousal support interchangeably for the purposes of this article.
What is the Purpose of Alimony in Washington?
Alimony is one of four topics that are discussed and agreed upon by the parties in mediation along with:
In Washington State, the purpose of spousal support can vary depending on the length of your marriage.
For example, if you've been married a short time, the purpose of alimony may be an "economic reset."
Meaning that some amount of alimony would be paid from one ex-spouse to the other to help the lower earning spouse get back on their feet. And give them just enough time to transition from married to single.
Initially, it may serve as income replacement. Putting you and your ex-spouse's post-marital lifestyles on par with each other.
Then, after some period, spousal support may be "downwardly modified." Meaning that the amount being paid or received would be reduced. Alimony would then act as a supplement to the income (hopefully) being earned from employment by the recipient spouse.
And finally, the spousal support would taper off over time to zero. Giving the recipient spouse a "soft-landing" and helping them avoid a financial cliff.
If you and your spouse have been married a long time, alimony may serve to equalize your lifestyles for many years, if not permanently.
In many long-term marriages, the recipient spouse may never have enough time to catch-up financially. Leaving them entirely dependent on alimony for the rest of their lives. And jeopardizing the possibility of retirement for the spouse paying alimony.
Regardless of the length of your marriage, alimony is always based on need. It's not meant to unjustly enrich one party or penalize the other. Also, alimony is gender neutral.
And its purpose can be extremely challenging to agree on.
There are a few things you need to understand about the challenges of determining alimony in Washington State:
The law is extremely vague on how to resolve issues of alimony. Washington State provides very little in the way of guidance;
If you have children, child support may affect the amount of spousal support you pay or receive;
The division of your community property will also play a role in determining alimony, further complicating negotiations;
Since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) passed in 2017 has eliminated the deduction of spousal support payments for payors and recipients are no longer required to report payments as taxable income, long-standing tactics used to foster agreement are no longer useful;
While on the surface, it might appear as if this tax change benefits the recipient and hurts the payor, it actually negatively impacts both parties;
This topic has less to do with alimony laws and more to do with money and negotiation;
There is more than meets the eye on this issue and this topic is much too complex (and emotional) for you to try to resolve on your own.
That's why you’ll get the best outcome by mediating.
"With emotions running high and no formulas and very few guidelines in Washington to help you come to an agreement on alimony payments, things can quickly go off the tracks in your case if you involve attorneys.
That's why it's better to work with an experienced divorce mediator like me.
I’ll take you through my proven, step-by-step process and help you and your spouse negotiate and come to an agreement (out of court) on alimony that's fair to both of you."
There is no such thing as an alimony calculator in Washington State.
Over the past few years, a handful of states have begun using a formula to determine alimony.
But unfortunately, there is no formula for calculating alimony in Washington.
Washington provides some general guidelines regarding alimony, but nothing explicit to help you determine a specific amount of spousal support applicable to your circumstances in your case.
The Washington State factors may include, but are not limited to:
(1) The financial resources of the party seeking maintenance, including separate or community property apportioned to him or her, and his or her ability to meet his or her needs independently, including the extent to which a provision for support of a child living with the party includes a sum for that party;
(2) The time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find employment appropriate to his or her skill, interests, style of life, and other attendant circumstances;
(3) The standard of living established during the marriage or domestic partnership;
(4) The duration of the marriage or domestic partnership;
(5) The age, physical and emotional condition, and financial obligations of the spouse or domestic partner seeking maintenance; and
(6) The ability of the spouse or domestic partner from whom maintenance is sought to meet his or her needs and financial obligations while meeting those of the spouse or domestic partner seeking maintenance.
Even with these factors, there is little guidance on how to resolve this topic. And not one of the “factors” listed above results in an actual dollar amount or specific alimony payment.
Leaving you and your spouse no choice but to negotiate it.
Which, given the nature of divorce itself and specifically, this heated issue, is very difficult to do.
Don't forget about cost of living.
As if figuring out Washington spousal support wasn't hard enough, there's yet one more factor we need to add to the mix. And that factor is where you live.
Say your marital home was in Seattle, in King County, and you're the party who will be paying alimony. But your spouse decides to move to Olympia post-divorce, to be near family.
Do you pay alimony to them based on what it cost you both to live in Seattle while you were married? Or, do you pay them based on what it will cost to live in Olympia - recognizing it will be 44.2% less expensive to live there?
And speaking of the cost of living, if the pundits are to be believed, inflation in 2023 doesn't look to be easing up anytime soon. And life is only going to get more expensive moving forward.
But you need to negotiate an amount of alimony - now.
If 5 years from now, rent, utilities, gas, and groceries are all 25% more expensive than they were in 2023, how do you account for that at the time of your divorce?
Determining an amount of alimony is just one piece of a larger picture.
You also need to determine duration.
And just like determining an amount, duration is not so easy to agree on.
If you were in a short term marriage, maybe the duration should only a few months. But what if you have children? And you’re soon-to-be-ex spouse is unable to return to work right away?
And if you were married a long time, what happens when you want to retire?
There is no set formula for determining how many years you need to pay alimony in Washington State.
The answer once again is you and your spouse will have to negotiate it.
When thinking of spousal support, most people think of the "check in the mail" approach.
But there are other, more creative ways to resolve this because some payor spouses just don’t like making alimony payments.
For example, sometimes people will trade alimony for community property in their case. Or do a lump sum alimony payment or an alimony buyout.
And in some cases, pay for their ex-spouse to return to school. The thinking being if they become self-sufficient, the need for spousal support may be eliminated, or greatly reduced.
The bottom line is there’s no such thing as "typical alimony" payments.
And there are many different ways to resolve this issue.
There is more than meets the eye when it comes to alimony in Washington.
Alimony is not a one-size-fits-all topic and every couple's situation, circumstances and determining factors are unique.
So coming to a fair agreement on alimony with your soon-to-be ex-spouse requires more than just a passing conversation or a wild guess. And as you’re starting to see, there’s a lot involved in this highly complex matter.
And a lot of places you can make costly mistakes.
In the majority of cases, this issue is much too complex and emotionally charged for you to attempt to determine on your own, especially if you have a long-term marriage.
When lawyers get involved, it’s a problem.
Because there's no formula or hard and fast alimony laws in Washington State, if you go the divorce attorney route, your lawyers can drag your negotiations on for years.
Fighting and fighting. Around and around in circles - in a very gray area. All while billing you their outrageous hourly fees.
Until neither you nor your spouse has any money left to keep paying your legal fees.
And there's no money left for alimony!
Just one more reason it's better for both spouses not to involve lawyers in their divorce negotiations.
When a judge gets involved, it’s a problem.
And if the issue cannot be resolved between the two of you and your lawyers, your case will go to litigation in court.
There's something you need to understand here: In a litigated divorce, a judge determines who gets what on a case-by-case basis.
Sounds scary, doesn't it?
Because they’ll dictate the terms of the settlement in court and tell you what you’re going to pay or receive.
And each of you might wind up with an alimony outcome you don’t think is fair or that doesn’t meet your needs.
That’s why it’s better to negotiate an amount and duration each spouse finds fair. And negotiation is exactly what divorce mediation is all about.
In mediation, you get to decide - and come to an agreement you both agree is fair, out of court - instead of letting your future be decided by a stranger.
You’ll get the best result by mediating your no-fault divorce.
Using our extensive financial knowledge of the complex matters of alimony and divorce, we'll discuss your options for maintenance in Washington State.
And we'll help you and your husband or wife understand how other aspects of your divorce settlement may impact your spousal support agreement.
We’ll also actively guide you through our comprehensive budgeting process to reflect your marital expenses as well as your projected expenses post-divorce. So we can take a close look together at what each of you earn, spend and will need to move forward.
And determine how, if at all, the division of your community property and debts and expenses related to your children will factor in when determining an amount and duration.
We’ll then help you negotiate a maintenance result you both find fair and will best allow you to fulfill your financial obligations after you're divorced.
Equitable Mediation enables you to get a fair maintenance outcome.
Why be forced to accept a settlement created by a family law attorney or judge when you can have a direct say in your financial future instead?
If you want to arrive at an agreement on maintenance that’s fair to each of you and doesn’t bankrupt you in the process, mediate your divorce with Equitable Mediation.
If you and your spouse have both agreed to divorce and both want to mediate, take the next step and book an initial meeting for the two of you.
Joe Dillon, MBA is a professional divorce mediator and founder of Equitable Mediation Services. Joe is passionate about helping couples avoid the destruction of attorney-driven litigation and specializes in helping couples resolve the issues required for divorce -peacefully, fairly and cost-effectively. When he’s not mediating, you can find him exercising, cooking, and watching Cubs baseball.