The legal system can seem confusing to non-lawyers. Laws and legal documents based on those laws are drafted using legal terms and language that is known mostly only to lawyers or legal professionals. In this article I explain in plain English some legal terms relating to divorce.
Divorce = Dissolution
In the State of Washington a divorce is called a “Dissolution.” One of the final legal documents that you will obtain from the court is called a Decree of Dissolution. When this document is finalized, your marriage is officially ended.
Washington is a “no fault state”, which means simply that to get a divorce or separation you don’t need to prove that either spouse did something wrong. In fact contrary to what many believe, wrong-doing by either spouse is never relevant as grounds for a divorce in Washington. A spouse’s actions or wrong-doing can be relevant in deciding issues relating to custody, visitation, and even division of property in certain circumstances, but in terms of the dissolution of the marriage itself fault is never an issue.
Grounds for divorce
There is only one ground for dissolution in Washington and it is that the marriage is “irretrievably broken.” What does that mean? It basically means that one of you is claiming that the marriage cannot work anymore. In your Dissolution papers you need do nothing other than make the statement that the marriage is irretrievably broken. No proof or details about the reason are necessary.
What is a “community property” state?
Washington is what is called a “community property” state. What this means is that when dividing property of spouses upon dissolution there is a presumption that all property acquired during the marriage is jointly owned 50/50. Property includes earnings of each spouse, real estate, and personal property. This rule is not absolute. Certain property is presumed to be “separate”, and includes anything acquired before marriage as well as gifts or inheritances that are made explicitly to one spouse alone. While the rules relating to what is community property and what is separate property are guided by these principles, the overriding principle regarding division of property upon dissolution in the State of Washington is that it be “just and equitable.” In a word, fair.
Custody of children
In Washington, the custody of children of the marriage is referred to as “residential placement” and the document governing where the children are to reside is called a Parenting Plan. This must be filed in all Dissolutions involving children. A Parenting Plan will, among other things, spell out where the children will reside, whether one or both parents get to make decisions about the children, and provides a schedule of how parental time with children is specifically allocated. The Primary Residential Parent is the parent with whom the children spend more than 50% of their time.
Determining Child Support
Child Support in Washington is determined legally by the Washington State Support Schedule. The Schedule provides formulas using combined incomes from both parties to determine how much child support will be paid by one parent to the other. For combined incomes below $5000 the court has a presumptive amount that it may set. For incomes above $5000 the court has an advisory amount that it may set. The court may deviate upward or downward from presumptive or advisory amounts according to the circumstances of the case if it deems it to be fair.
Spousal Maintenance (Alimony)
What is commonly referred to as alimony is called “spousal maintenance” in the State of Washington. Spousal maintenance is not a given: If it is not agreed to and it is asked for, it will be determined on a case-by-case basis with the court balancing one party’s need with the other party’s ability to pay. The court will look at, among other things, the length of the marriage and the economic circumstances of each party. Read more about spousal maintenance in Washington State.