1. What is spousal maintenance and when is it ordered by the court? “Spousal maintenance”, previously known as “alimony” is a transfer of income between spouses or former spouses. The family law court can order spousal maintenance payments be paid by one spouse to the other, on the request of either spouse. Spousal maintenance is not given, like child support, in all cases as a matter of right. Rather, Washington law gives the court power to award maintenance in an amount and for a period of time that the court can decide. The court also has power to refuse to award spousal maintenance. In making these decisions, the court must be guided by Washington law, including the basic guidelines set forth in RCW 26.09. In general, maintenance is more likely to be awarded in longer-term marriages. It is also used as a tool by the family law court to facilitate transition from a single to separate households and to assist financially dependent spouses in obtaining training or otherwise achieving financial independence consistent with the circumstances of the parties.
2. How does the court determine how much maintenance a spouse has to pay/or should receive? Both parties are required to submit a financial declaration (using form “Financial Declaration” on right side here) and supporting financial documentation to help the Judge understand the total financial circumstances of both parties. The Judge must find both “financial need” of one spouse and “ability to pay” of the other before granting any maintenance.
3. How long do maintenance payments last? The court order requiring maintenance payments will state the amount and number of months maintenance must be paid. If the maintenance is awarded pending divorce, it can be extended only to the date of trial (“temporary maintenance”) or sooner if the parties settle without trial. If the maintenance decision is made by divorce trial, the divorce court can make an award continuing through the lifetime of the receiving spouse. However, maintenance this long is extremely rare in Washington. It is far more common for maintenance awards to end after a year or two. Maintenance terminates on the remarriage of the receiving spouse unless the maintenance order specifically states otherwise. However, the remarriage of the paying spouse is not grounds for maintenance termination.
4. How is maintenance collected? The court order awarding maintenance will give specific payment instructions. If child support is also awarded to a spouse, the state Division of Child Support can collect the maintenance with the child support, by direct payment from the paying spouse’s wages. Parties can make alternative arrangements such as electronic transfer from the paying to the payee’s bank account. If maintenance payments are late, the receiving spouse can request that the court hold the paying spouse in “contempt of court” to force payment of the award.
5. Can maintenance be modified? If the divorce is granted by a trial, the maintenance order can be modified at any time based on significant change of economic circumstances of the former spouses. On the other hand, if divorce is achieved by settlement, the parties can agree to a maintenance order that cannot be modified. RCW 26.09.
6. How is spousal maintenance treated for federal income tax purposes? Maintenance is 100% deductible by the paying spouse. The receiving spouse must claim 100% of the maintenance received as “ordinary income”. (cit to fed code). It is important to note that not all transfers of funds between divorcing spouses are not “spousal maintenance” for tax purposes. A maintenance court order must conform to the requirements of federal tax law to be eligible for this tax treatment.