By Allen Glass
As a divorce attorney practicing in King County, I am often trying to negotiate alimony (called “spousal maintenance” in Washington). According to the Internal Revenue Service, former spouses pay around $9 billion in alimony each year.
In Washington there is no uniform standard for determining the proper duration of a maintenance award. The amounts and duration of maintenance awards are usually decided by judges, using a list of factors. The court will look at the length of the marriage, the standard of living established during the marriage, the difference in incomes of the spouses, the age and health of the spouses, and time necessary for a spouse to get reintegrated back into the workforce.
The purpose of spousal maintenance is to support a spouse until he or she is able to earn a living or otherwise become self-supporting. Accordingly, the court disfavors an award of maintenance for life.
The unpredictability of alimony awards in Washington imposes several costs. Negotiating a settlement is harder when spouses have no idea what they’ll end up with if they take their chances in court. There is a financial cost to the litigation as well as an emotional cost. People endure unhappy marriages for fear of getting themselves into a financial crisis. Some spouses may endure abusive relationships for years because the other spouse controls the family finances.
Several states have taken steps to take the unpredictability out of alimony. New York State recently passed a law alimony is set at 30 percent of the higher-earning spouse’s income, minus 20 percent of the lower-earning spouse’s, as long as the recipient doesn’t end up with more than 40 percent of the couple’s combined income. For example, a physician making $250,000 a year married to a writer earning $50,000 could expect to pay around $65,000 a year.
It’s worthwhile to apply these standards to the rulings that come out of the Washington State Appeals Court that serves King County. In a 2007 case, Erin and Kevin were married for 10 years. She earned $77,000 per year and he earned $300,000 per year. The court ordered Kevin to pay Erin the amount of $1,500 for one year. The court reasoned that Erin had received from Kevin $10,000 a month during the parties’ 23-month separation, representing both maintenance and child support, bringing the total duration of maintenance received by Erin to approximately three years, a significant length of time in light of the ten-year duration of the marriage. Under the New York standard, Erin would have received is $6,217 per month.
Massachusetts has recently established guidelines to limit the duration of alimony. A marriage of five years or less that ends in divorce, for example, could require alimony payments for up to half of the length of the marriage. Those lasting between 15 and 20 years could require payments for up to 80 percent of the marriage.
In a 2010 King County case, John Bracken was married 19 years and his wife Dallene, and she was awarded 20 years of alimony. John appealed and the court said that “the court has broad discretion to award maintenance.” Under the Massachusetts standard the court could have only awarded maintenance up to 15 years.
Despite the uncertainty, an experienced attorney who regularly tries cases in King County can advise a client of what range of reasonable expectations are for the likelihood, amount, and duration of alimony. It would just be a lot better if the process were clearer.