Divorce in Washington
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is the difference between divorce and legal separation?
“Divorce” and “Dissolution of Marriage” are the same thing. We speak of dissolution as in “Petition for Dissolution of Marriage,” the document that starts off the legal divorce process and “Decree of Dissolution,” the document that ends it. When this Decree is signed by a judge or commissioner, your marriage is over. This Decree not only formally ends the marriage, it will also divide your assets and liabilities and make provisions for spousal maintenance. If you have children, you will also need a Parenting Plan and an Order of Child Support.
Years ago, a procedure was set up for people who no longer wished to remain together as man and wife, but who for religious or personal reasons did not want to be “divorced.” It used to be called “separate maintenance” but is now called “Legal Separation.” The procedure of “legal separation” basically tracks the same path as a dissolution action, except that the parties cannot remarry with a Decree of Legal Separation. However, this Decree will also divide your assets and liabilities and set maintenance. If you get a legal separation you will also have a Parenting Plan and Order of Child Support entered as well.
How long does it take to get divorced?
The shortest amount of time it will take to get your Decree is 90 days from the date you serve the Petition for Dissolution (the document you file in court to start the whole process going) on your spouse. The rules of service are fairly technical - there are special procedures that are described in the law. You can serve your spouse the Summons and Petition yourself and this would be acceptable service only if your spouse signs and dates an Acceptance of Service form and you file that with the Court. The 90 days starts to run from the date this Acceptance of Service was signed (not when you delivered the papers to your spouse).
If you and your spouse can’t agree about important issues, then the 90-day “waiting period” probably won’t apply to you. At that point the length of time to get a final Decree depends on a lot of things (Get used to hearing that sort of thing from lawyers - because few things in the law are nearly as cut-and–dried as people wish they were. So much depends on peoples’ particular circumstances).
The length of time can depend on how complex your legal divorce is (Do you have serious parenting disputes or a lot of assets, for example?); whether lawyers have gotten involved who are particularly litigious; whether one of you is just not ready to let go, so the process gets drawn out or whether the two of you are really angry at each other or just can’t come to an agreement and the case will have to go to trial in order to get a final resolution. If you do go to trial, it depends on the county in Washington where you live. In King County, it takes a bit less than a year to get to trial date once you file your Petition. In other, less populous, counties in Washington it will probably take less time.
How much will it cost?
Well, of course, some of the prior answer applies here as well. The more you fight, the more it will cost. Family law trials are extremely expensive. Not only will you be paying for the lawyers’ time, but you will also have to hire expert witnesses to provide guidance to the judge in areas like asset valuation and parenting. Experienced family lawyers charge as little as $225 per hour and as much as $350 per hour in the Puget Sound, with most practitioners falling in the $250-$325 per hour range. Most attorneys will generally ask for an advance fee deposit that they will put in their trust account and draw upon once they have billed you for the time spent. These advance fee deposits can run from $2500 to $5000 or more depending on the complexity of the case and the intensity of the conflict.
People can end their marriages with a lawyer’s help for as little as $1,500 and as much as $50,000 or more. It is not unheard of for a divorce to cost the marital community many hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Do I need a lawyer?
Because you are adjusting the legal rights between you and your spouse and having orders entered in court which will impact your life for many years to come, it is always wise to get the advice of a lawyer, even if you choose to represent yourself. Many lawyers will spend time advising and coaching you or even preparing papers reflecting the agreements which you have negotiated. This is actually a new approach to legal assistance and it is called “unbundled services.” There is more information on this service elsewhere on this website.
Also, Washington law attempts to be very consumer friendly in this area, which is very “form driven.” The Washington Courts web-site provides all the forms you will need, together with explanations. Of course in circumstances where there is a real imbalance of power between the spouses; the marriage has been lengthy; there are serious disagreements over the children or there is a lot at stake economically you really should have legal representation.
Remember that once the Decree is entered you can’t change it (with some limited exceptions) so you really want to consider whether you want to be penny wise and pound foolish by saving money on legal advise now only to find a couple of years down the road that you have a very disadvantageous outcome in your legal divorce that you cannot change.
Should I mediate?
Mediation is a process in which people who have disagreements work to settle their dispute with the assistance of a trained, neutral, third party. Mediators do not impose anything on you, like a judge would. The advantage of mediation, then, is that you make the decisions on your future and if your spouse proposes a deal that you feel you just cannot accept....well, you don’t have to accept it.
The value of a mediator is that he or she can help facilitate communication between you and your spouse so that you are less likely to get bogged down in defensiveness and anger. A mediator who is experienced in family law can also help each of you decide whether your expectations are realistic. (This is why a person who is trained as both a lawyer and mental health professional possess a unique combination of valuable skills for the mediator’s task - and I can recommend a good person with this kind of background.)
You can mediate if you have a lawyer or if you don’t - but I always recommend that even if you are not represented by a lawyer that you have your agreement reviewed by a family law attorney to make sure that all of your concerns and questions can be answered by someone who you retain to advise you, only.
The bottom line (literally) is that studies have demonstrated that in almost every circumstance, mediation saves divorce parties money and the emotional trauma of litigation. However, as you might expect, mediation is not for everybody and in cases involving domestic violence or other significant power imbalances, for example, mediation is discouraged.
Can I get alimony?
Alimony is called spousal maintenance in Washington. The amount of maintenance and its duration is entirely in the judge’s discretion to grant. Washington law has some guidelines for a judge to consider which are: (1) The needs of the spouse seeking maintenance and the ability of the other spouse to pay; (2) The time necessary to enable the spouse seeking maintenance to find employment “appropriate to his/her skill, interests, style of life and other attendant circumstances;” (3) The duration of the marriage; (4) The age, physical and emotional condition and financial obligations of the spouse seeking maintenance. The law clearly says that the judge has to consider these factors but cannot consider “marital misconduct.” Again, an experienced family lawyer will be able to tell you how all of these factors are likely to apply in your own situation
Do we have to split all of our property 50/50?
Marital property, or community property, certainly can be divided 50/50, but there is nothing in Washington law that requires that property be split equally. In fact, Washington is not a “pure” community property state (like California, for example, where community property must be divided equally). While we do engage in the analysis of which assets and liabilities are community and which are separate, the judge is directed by the law to make a “just and equitable” distribution based on a number of factors, which include: (1) The nature and extent of the community property; (2) The nature and extent of the separate property; (3) The duration of the marriage and (4) The economic circumstances of each spouse at the time the division of property is to become effective.
In truth, there are so many factors that go into the property distribution analysis that unless your marriage has been of short duration, you have no kids and your assets and liabilities are quite limited, it is always a good idea to invest in a consultation with a lawyer to get a feeling for where you stand and how you should proceed.
How much child support will I get/pay?
The amount of child support in Washington is determined by a pretty strict formula. Unlike maintenance, child support is usually calculated by using a computer program. Washington has a child support guideline which sets out a specific amount of support based upon each parent’s net income. The law includes almost any income from any source to arrive at gross income and then deducts very little in arriving at net income for purposes of child support calculations (Federal and state income taxes; FICA or self employment taxes; Mandatory pension plan payments (or voluntary retirement payments of no more than $5,000/year); Mandatory union or professional dues; State industrial insurance premiums; Court-ordered spousal maintenance which is actually paid; Normal business expenses). You can get a sense of what child support would be in our situation by going to the on-line Washington Child Support Calculator
Once child support is set, the judge can “deviate” from that amount based on a handful of specifically identified factors that are set forth in the law.
Can we change the Parenting Plan if it’s not working out?
As a general principle it is very hard to change the residential portions of a Parenting Plan once it has been entered. Washington public policy strongly supports stability in parenting arrangements so the law sets a high bar that has to be cleared before a parent can go into court and change the child’s residence. Other, less significant portions of a Parenting Plan, like adjustments to a holiday or a few residential days here and there over the course of a year or other “tweaks” may be less difficult to achieve - but in any event the parent seeking a change has to demonstrate that there has been a significant change in circumstances that was not anticipated at the time the Parenting Plan was entered and that a change will be in the child’s best interests.
Of course, as with every question, the result will depend upon your specific facts and circumstances. There is no way to give black and white information in what is essentially an area of life with many shades of gray. Again, as with every area of family law, there are nuances and much greater detail in the rules than can be set forth in a brief answer, so if you have serious concerns about how your Parenting Plan is working out, it is strongly recommended that you consult an experienced family lawyer.
What if I want to look up the divorce laws myself or do it myself without a lawyer?
Washington Law supports people who want to manage their divorces themselves. In fact, if you do not have a lawyer, when you file your Petition, the clerk gives out a Family Law Handbook , which contains lots of helpful information. People who represent themselves in court are called pro se and there is plenty of pro se assistance in Washington and particularly in King County. For example, the King County Bar Association gives seminars for people who want to pursue their own divorce and the Washington State Courts website has plenty of information for you.
There is a fairly new movement in law called “unbundling legal services” in which attorneys act as advisers or “coaches” for people who want to take care of their own legal affairs themselves and/or can’t afford the full services of a lawyer. You should inquire about the availability of this service with any lawyer you consult, if you want to try self-representation.
If we just live together for a long time, will we have a common law marriage?
Washington does not recognize “common law marriages.” However, there is something called a “long term intimate relationship” that unmarried people who live together should know about. A long term intimate relationship is defined by Washington law as a stable, long-term relationship where the parties do not intend to marry. Depending on a number of factors, a court may find that the relationship should be considered a long term intimate relationship and some, but not all, of the rights between married people will arise. If a long term intimate relationship ends, the parties will divide property that would have been community property if they had been married. However, each person will keep their separate property and there is no right of spousal support that arises from a long term intimate relationship.
Some of the factors a court will consider include: (1) The continuity of the cohabitation; (2) The duration of the relationship; (3) The purpose of the relationship; (4) Whether the parties pooled their resources and services to accomplish common goals and projects and (5) The parties’ intent. There is no hard and fast rule that a couple who lives together for “x” period of time will automatically be considered to have a long term intimate relationship.
The Legal Divorce Process
The legal divorce in Washington begins with the filing of a Summons and Petition, Confidential Information Form and a State Statistical Form that you can obtain from the clerk at the time of filing and goes to Olympia. In King County there are also two additional forms (Cover Sheet and Case Assignment Designation) that you can also obtain at the time of filing.
The filing fee for divorce in Washington ranges from $250 – 314. It’s $314 in King County.
The person who is filing the petition is the Petitioner, the person who is not filing the Petition is called the Respondent. It is possible for the Respondent to sign a Joinder to the Petition (which is at the end of the Petition). If you do this, be sure that you clearly ask that no orders be entered without giving you notice.
The 90-Day Waiting Period
You cannot get divorced until 90 days have passed from the date that either the Petition is filed with a signed joinder by the Respondent, or the Respondent has been served. If the Respondent does not sign the Joinder, then (1) that person will have to be served and (2) within 20 days of their being served they need to file and serve on the Petitioner by mail a Response.
Service can be accomplished either by having a licensed process server actually hand you the papers (there are other manners of personal service that won’t be addressed here) or the Petitioner can actually hand them to the Respondent only if the Respondent then signs an Acceptance of Service form. This form needs to be filed with the clerk’s office. The Respondent, then, needs to file and serve by mail a Response to the Petition.
When the 90-day waiting period expires, you can get your final orders entered.
Finalizing Your Divorce
There are four Final Orders that need to be entered to be able to finalize your divorce. Being “entered” means that the judicial officer signs the final orders. These orders are:
1. The Decree of Dissolution
2. The Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law
And if there are minor children:
3. The Parenting Plan with the Residential Time Summary Report
4. The Order of Child Support with the Child Support Worksheet.
Once these are signed by the judicial officer, you will want to take them to the clerk’s office and get copies made. Under some circumstances, you may need a Certified Copy of one or more of the orders. These can be obtained from the clerk’s office at that time, as well. Be sure to bring your checkbook as these Certified Copies are not cheap.
If You Are Representing Yourself
Each county in Washington has its own procedure for setting up the entry of your final divorce papers.
King County provides useful information here
The King County Bar Association provides free seminars by family lawyers on how to enter your final orders as well as other pro bono services.
Other Factors to Consider
The world of contested divorce is extremely detailed and can be quite complicated. If there are disagreements about short term provisions over finances or the kids; if one person needs protection from a violent partner or if one person is concerned that the other is going to spend or waste community assets, there will be a need for temporary orders. These are obtained from a court on a “motion’ which is filed and served on the other person (or their lawyer) at least 14 days before the hearing. There are special forms for these kinds of procedures that can be found on the website of the King County Superior Court and Washington State Courts.
It is almost always a wise investment to confer with a lawyer who is familiar with the legal process to make sure you are “dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s” so that your first time before the court will be your last and you will not need to retrace your efforts.
Articles About Divorce
by Joseph Shaub
The Emotional Divorce Process
Research on Divorce
The Client’s Perspective on Legal Divorce
The Sad Case of Divorce and Amnesia
Why You Really Don’t Want to Go to Court