Family Law

Divorce in Washington

By Melissa Heinig, Attorney
It's no surprise that most people don't enjoy going to court for any reason, let alone to ask a judge to end your marriage. Are you considering filing for divorce in Washington? If so, it's essential that you understand your state's legal requirements.

If you’re at a point where you’re considering divorce, this article should shed some light on the basics you need to know in Washington.

A Lesson in Divorce

Divorce is a legal process that allows a judge to end a legal marriage. Every state creates its own rules regarding divorce, but overall, the process is similar in most states. The steps in Washington include:

  • filing a petition for dissolution of marriage
  • serving the complaint to your spouse
  • a response by the other spouse
  • the waiting period to negotiate a settlement, and
  • trial.

An essential step in every divorce is for the filing spouse to identify the type of divorce they wish to pursue, and there are two types, no-fault and fault-based. All states allow couples to request a no-fault divorce, which is where the filing spouse tells the court that the relationship isn’t working, and it’s not going to get better with time. The most attractive feature of no-fault divorce is that there is no need to assign blame to either spouse for the breakup, and this generally speeds up the process.

Some states allow couples to pursue a fault divorce, which is where you claim that your spouse’s actions during the marriage caused the breakup. Fault divorces are more complicated because in addition to identifying and proving the specific misconduct your spouse committed during the marriage, you also need to convince a judge that this behavior caused the divorce.

Washington only allows parties to request a no-fault divorce, and the filing spouse must state that the marriage has suffered an irretrievable breakdown, meaning the couple no longer gets along, and neither spouse believes reconciliation is possible.

Residency Requirements and Waiting Periods

Parties hoping to file for divorce in Washington must meet the residency requirements. Unlike other states, which often require spouses to live in the jurisdiction for a specific amount of time, in Washington, either spouse need only demonstrate that they currently reside in the state and intend on staying there after the divorce.

To provide couples enough time to negotiate a settlement agreement, courts in Washington will not take any action in the divorce until 90 days after the filing spouse gives a copy of the documents to the defendant. If the couple can’t work out an agreement, the court will schedule a trial date after the cooling-off period expires.

Getting Temporary Orders During the Waiting Period

It’s common for couples to need a little direction while waiting for the court to finalize the divorce. Temporary orders are a way for parties to ask the court for assistance while they wait for the final divorce order.

Common requests include:

  • temporary financial orders, which is where the court can restrict both spouses from spending marital money, or order each spouse to continue paying the same bills they usually pay
  • custody and visitation plans, meaning the court will identify the custodial parent, provide a temporary visitation schedule for the noncustodial parent, and assign each parent a child support obligation, and
  • orders for temporary spousal support, for families where one spouse is the primary earner and the other needs assistance until the final divorce judgment.

Property and Debt Division

Washington is a community property state, which means that any property or debt the couple acquired during the marriage, belongs equally to each spouse. If you can’t decide how to divvy up your belongings, the court will do it for you.

The only exception to community property division is if either spouse owns separate property (or debt), which is anything owned by a spouse before the marriage, or, in some situations, gifts received during the marriage. For example, if your spouse’s grandmother passed away and gifted $20,000 to your spouse, that money belongs to your spouse separately, and the court won’t divide it.

Of course, there are exceptions and property division can be messy, so be sure to talk with your attorney if you have questions or concerns.

How Does the Court Establish Custody and Visitation?

Divorce with children is often the most challenging. Courts encourage parents to work together to create a parenting plan and residential schedule for their family, but if working together isn’t possible, the court will decide for you.

Parenting plans describe who will be the primary caretaker of the children, where the children will live, how the parents will make decisions about the children, and how the couple will resolve future disputes. Courts design parenting plans and residential (visitation) schedules by using a set of factors to evaluate what’s best for the children.

Are There Alternatives to Divorce in Washington?

Yes. Couples who aren’t sure if divorce is the right process for them can ask the court for a legal separation, meaning the court (or couple) divides property and decides custody and support issues, but remain legally married. Legal separation may seem like an unorthodox process, but it works well for couples whose religion prohibits divorce, for couples unable to financially support themselves, or in situations where the couple isn’t sure they're ready for something as permanent as a divorce.

Another alternative in Washington is an annulment. Under very limited circumstances, courts can end the legal marriage and treat it as though it never happened. There is a common misconception that a short marriage qualifies for annulment, which is not true. Couples pursuing an annulment will need to prove they meet specific qualifications before a judge grants the request.

Should I Hire an Attorney?

Although in some cases, divorcing spouses can file for divorce and navigate the legal system on their own, it’s always better to have an ally by your side. If you have questions during the process, contact an experienced family law attorney near you.

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