Residency Requirements and Grounds for Divorce
Either you or your spouse must be a Washington resident or a member of any armed force stationed in Washington to file for a divorce, called a "dissolution."
Washington is a "no fault" state, which means either spouse can get a divorce simply by stating in divorce papers that the marriage is "irretrievably broken." This means there's been a breakdown in the marriage with no reasonable chance to save it.
A divorce case begins when one spouse files a "Petition for Dissolution of Marriage" with the court. The other spouse is then served with the paperwork and has time to respond. If you and your spouse agree on property and debt division, as well as child custody and child support matters, the divorce can be finalized as soon as 90 days after the case is filed. If you and your spouse don't agree, the court sets a time for a hearing, usually months ahead.
Once your case is filed, either you or your spouse can request temporary assistance from the court in the form of temporary custody and child support orders, and orders to determine who pays community debts on a temporary basis.
Dividing the Property
Washington is a "community property" state, which means that assets and debts acquired during your marriage will be divided "equitably" or fairly when you divorce.
In deciding property division issues, judges consider many factors including:
- Marriage length
- The nature and amount of community and separate property
- The financial circumstances and earning potential of each spouse
- The health of each spouse
- Where the children will live most of the time
Each spouse keeps his or her "separate property." Separate property includes assets you had before marriage, property you acquired as a gift or inheritance and income from separate property.
Be prepared with information on your property, including when you purchased it, an estimate of value, and details such as account numbers, serial numbers and so forth. You'll be ready to meet with a Washington divorce lawyer, and it can save you a lot of time and money.
A court can order alimony, called "maintenance" or "spousal support" to either spouse. A court has discretion in awarding alimony, and considers factors such as:
- Financial resources and abilities of each spouse to meet their needs
- Marriage length
- Standard of living established during the marriage
- Time a spouse may need to retrain or otherwise find employment
- Age and physical and emotional condition of the recipient
- The ability of the paying spouse to provide support while meeting his or her needs
A court can order temporary maintenance while the divorce is pending. Most maintenance is ordered for a set time period. Once ordered, maintenance can be modified based on a "substantial change in circumstances."
Child Custody and Visitation
In Washington, the concepts of "custody" and "visitation" have been replaced with a residential schedule known as a "Parenting Plan." The parenting plan provides the framework for child-rearing after a divorce, including a schedule for time spent with each parent, how parenting decisions are made and by whom, and how conflicts will be handled.
If parents can't agree on a plan, the court decides based on the best interest of the child. Factors considered by the court include:
- The relative strength, nature and stability of the child's relationship with each parent, including whether a parent has taken greater responsibility in meeting a child's daily needs
- Any agreements the parents have made
- Each parent's ability to perform parenting functions
- The emotional needs and developmental level of the child
- The child's relationship with siblings and other significant adults
- The child's involvement with his or her school or other activities
- Parents' wishes
- Child's wishes, if he or she is mature enough to express a reasoned preference
After the Parenting Plan is signed by the judge and filed with the court clerk, both parents are bound by it. If you're denied court-ordered access to your child, you can seek help from the court, including a contempt action. If found in contempt, a parent can be fined or even face jail time. Consequences grow each time there's a violation of parenting plan terms, including changes in who is named as the primary residential parent.
Generally, a substantial change of circumstances is needed for modification of a parenting plan, and the change sought must be in the child's best interest.
Child support is based on the income and assets of both parents, and parents must provide a fair share of support. The amount of child support is based on state child support tables and worksheets.
A court can deviate from the child support table based on factors such as:
- Parents' income sources that aren't received on a regular basis, such as bonuses or overtime wages
- Income from another adult in the household, such as a new spouse or domestic partner
- A child's extraordinary income
- High debt or expenses
- Duty to support children from other relationships
If it's been two years since the entry or change to your child support order, you can seek modification based on a change in a parent's income or in the child support tables without showing a "substantial change of circumstances." You can seek a change at any time based on a substantial change of circumstances, such as a change in your child's needs. A parent's job loss isn't always a substantial change and may not warrant a child support order modification.
Questions for Your Attorney