In the state of Washington, spousal support is not calculated by simply plugging numbers into a pre-determined formula. It is determined on a case-by-case basis, in most instances taking into account the financial needs of the spouse seeking support and the ability of the other spouse to contribute to that need. Because spousal support awards can vary greatly from case to case and judge to judge, this specific area of family law may be more unpredictable than others. This article is meant to help you understand what to expect if spousal support is a potential issue in your case.
Establishing Need & Ability to Pay
There is no Washington State statute prescribing exactly how much spousal support should be awarded or for how long it should be awarded. In most cases, the determination is simply based on the factors referenced above – ‘need’ and ‘ability to pay.’ If the spouse seeking support cannot demonstrate a financial need, it won’t really matter whether the opposing party can afford to pay it or not. However, even if the party seeking support can demonstrate a need, a court may still decline to enter an award of spousal support if it determines that the opposing party does not have the ability to pay it.
What the Courts Will Look At
During disputes over spousal support, both parties will submit evidence to the court demonstrating their respective financial situations. Anything that can shed light on the issue of “need versus ability to pay” will be evaluated.
The court will consider:
- Earning capacity of each spouse
- Assets of each spouse
- Debts and household expenses
- Special needs of either spouse and/or their children
- Each party’s ability to work (including educational background and health issues)
- Standard of living during the marriage, and
- Length of the marriage.
Typically, if one spouse has expenses that exceed earning capacity, the courts will find that a need for support exists. Sometimes, even when a spouse earns an income that is sufficient to cover all monthly household and special expenses, the court may still determine that a need exists. For instance, Spouse A might earn $3,000.00 per month in take-home pay and incur average monthly expenses of $2,800.00. If there is a disparity in income, where Spouse B makes significantly more income, the court may determine that Spouse B still demonstrates need, even though he or she can cover their own expenses; this type of “need” is based on the standard of living during the marriage. The length of the marriage plays a significant role in such cases – if the marriage is very short term, a party’s standard of living during the marriage is given less weight than that of longer-term marriages.
Length of Spousal Support
When determining how long spousal support should continue, the courts often divide marriages into categories based on their length. If you have a short-term marriage (usually 0-5 years), spousal support will likely not be awarded for long periods of time. A marriage lasting several years could mean one spouse is ordered to pay support for significant period of time. And, for long-term marriages lasting 25 years, the courts have the option of disregarding the “need versus ability to pay” analysis and may order spousal support until the death or remarriage of the party receiving support.
It cannot be emphasized enough that spousal support awards can differ dramatically depending on the facts of your case. Because of the unpredictability and potentially huge financial consequences, spousal support issues can be stressful for clients. At AB Law, we focus exclusively on Family Law and we deal with just these kinds of issues on a day-to-day basis. There’s a great deal of complexity when it comes to spousal support issues, but we are here to help guide you through the tough issues, including when to settle with the other party and when to take your shot in court.