Going into a divorce, you may be overwhelmed with advice, some of which is informed and much of which is not. However, Washington state divorce laws are straightforward and can be interpreted by an experienced Washington divorce lawyer to give you a clear idea of how a divorce can be resolved.
This does not mean that Washington divorce laws are free from surprises or quirks. Learn more about seven of Washington’s unusual divorce laws and how they might affect you below.
Washington State Divorce Laws
Divorces in Washington state are governed by Chapter 26.09 of the Washington Revised Code. These statutes set out almost everything you need to know about how courts handle divorce proceedings, including the three big areas of most divorces:
- Property division
- Maintenance and support
- Child custody
Like every state, Washington has tailored its divorce laws to carry out the policies the state considers important. This tailoring has resulted in some unusual laws.
1. No-Fault Divorce
Washington has embraced the policy of reducing the bitterness of divorces by instituting a no-fault divorce system. In a no-fault divorce, neither party needs to allege marital misconduct, such as infidelity or emotional cruelty, to be granted a divorce. Instead, the spouse who files for divorce only needs to allege that the marriage is irretrievably broken.
Equally important, the court is not allowed to consider misconduct in allocating the couple’s property or awarding spousal and child support.
2. Washington is a Community Property State
Only nine states use a community property system to distribute property in a divorce – Washington is one of them. Community property is a system where the couple’s assets are divided into two categories:
- Community property: Property acquired during the marriage is presumed to be community property.
- Separate property: Property acquired before the marriage is presumed to be separate property, even if the couple was dating, engaged, or living together when the property was acquired.
Separate property is retained by the spouse who brought it to the marriage, unless the property becomes “commingled.” For example, If one spouse brings property into the marriage, and then that property has a lien put on it in both parties’ names, that property COULD be considered commingled and thus be treated as community property in the divorce.
Community property will be divided between the couple. Generally, the property will be divided equally, although a court has some leeway to make a “just and equitable” property division. For example, one spouse might be awarded the family home to keep the children in a familiar environment, with an offset in other community property awarded to the other spouse.
3. Alimony is Not Automatic
Alimony, called spousal maintenance in Washington state divorce laws, is not always awarded in divorces. When considering an alimony request, a judge can consider several factors in granting it, including:
- The financial state of the parties
- The standard of living
- The length of the marriage
- The ability of the spouse to pay alimony
Unless the balance of factors favors awarding alimony to one of the spouses, a judge can issue a divorce decree without any alimony award.
4. Courts Tend to Award Custody to the Parent Who had the Children During the Divorce
While the spouses go through their physical separation and divorce, the children will usually stay with one parent while the other parent moves out. Correctly or not, Washington divorce laws encourage the court to give heavy weight to “the existing pattern of interaction” between the children and their parents when deciding custody.
This means something as simple as the children’s temporary living arrangement during the divorce could end up deciding their final living arrangements. So, it is very important to take this in to consideration as temporary orders are being established during the divorce process.
5. You Could Be Assigned Child Support Even If You Are Unemployed
A parent who is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed can have income imputed to them for purposes of determining child support. The court can consider many factors in deciding whether to impute income to the parent and how much to impute.
These factors are all directed toward answering one question: is the parent deliberately reducing earnings to avoid paying child support? If the answer is yes, the court will impute earnings to the parent and could order the parent to pay child support even though the parent has no actual earnings.
6. Common Law Marriage is Called a Committed Intimate Relationship
A common law marriage lacks a ceremony or license but develops over years of behaving as if a couple was married. Washington does not recognize common law marriages.
However, case law in Washington state recognizes committed intimate relationships based on the duration of the relationship and various factors intended to determine whether you acted as if you were married.
Couples in a committed intimate relationship are entitled to a “just and equitable property disposition” when the couple separates. In other words, an unmarried but committed couple is entitled to a divorce-like proceeding when the relationship ends.
7. Divorces Take 90 Days, but There Are Quicker Options
By law, a divorce in Washington state is subject to a 90-day “cooling off” period between service on the non-filing spouse and the final divorce decree. This means that even when spouses agree on all the terms of the divorce, they still need to wait 90 days to divorce under Washington state divorce laws.
However, a legal separation has no waiting period. While a contested legal separation may take months to resolve through court hearings, a judge can finalize an agreed legal separation in a matter of days. Eventually, if you wanted to get divorced, you would have to go back to court to have it finalized.
Navigating Washington State Divorce Laws
These examples just scratch the surface of Washington divorce laws. While these unusual divorce laws can lead to unexpected outcomes, an experienced divorce lawyer can guide you through the pitfalls and quirks of divorce in Washington State.
Contact us to discuss how Washington state divorce laws could affect you in a divorce or legal separation.