Spousal maintenance is a payment from one spouse to the other as a means to equalize the financial situation of the parties, compensate one spouse for the sacrifices made during the marriage or to support one spouse as they get back up on their feet after the dissolution of the marriage. In Washington State there are five basic factors used for the determination of the amount and duration of spousal support. They are unranked, but the first two factors are generally the most important. These factors are:
- Need of the requesting spouse;
- Ability of the other spouse to pay;
- Length of the marriage;
- Standard of living of the parties during the marriage; and
- How long will it take for the receiving partner to return to financial stability?
The courts have wide discretion to weigh the factors and determine the duration and amount of the spousal maintenance award. The parties’ amount of separate and community assets, or debts, at the time of divorce, age, future earning potential, and other relevant facts will be weighed by the court when they are making their determinations.
Generally, short term marriages will not see spousal maintenance awards much beyond the time it takes to obtain the divorce itself. Medium length marriages would be a few years and long term marriages may see spousal maintenance awards from a short period up to the lifetime of the receiving spouse. This isn’t to say the court is prohibited from awarding lifetime maintenance for shorter term marriages, but the intention of the courts may be more inclined to place the parties back where they began for shorter term marriages rather than equalizing the parties’ financial circumstances.
An agreement to have spousal maintenance non-modifiable can be made by the parties, or ordered by the court. If not, spousal maintenance can be modified upon a substantial change in circumstances of the parties. This could mean an increase, or decrease, in the duration or amount of the payment transfer.
Spousal maintenance generally ends upon the death of either party or the re-marriage of the receiving party. Maintenance paid is usually a tax deduction for the paying spouse and taxable for the receiving party. It will also likely be considered an income increase for the receiving party and a decrease for the paying party for purposes of child support. This will likely result in a decrease in the amount of child support otherwise payable.
When there are Issues regarding spousal maintenance in a relationship the factors are generally some of the most contested parts of the process. The importance of briefing these factors appropriately for the trier-of-fact cannot be stressed enough in order to obtain a successful resolution.