Keay Law, PLLC

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This material is produced by Keay Law, PLLC. It is intended to provide general information in summary form on legal topics, current at the time of first publication. The contents do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular matters. If you need further information, you may need a professional consultation with a qualified family law attorney.
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In Washington, the court can resolve many issues regarding the dissolution of a marriage. The primary issues resolved are usually property/debt division and children. The court must have jurisdiction to rule on the issues raised. In some cases, the court may have jurisdiction over some issues in a divorce, but not over all the issues that need to be resolved.

The divorce process starts with the filing of a document entitled Petition for Dissolution of Marriage ("petition"). The content and length of this document will depend on your circumstances and the relief you request. The petition is required by statutes to contain certain information and must also include certain representations by the party. For instance, if there is a premarital agreement between the parties, it should be called to the court's--and the other side's-- attention in the first pleading.

This petition is filed with the Superior Court Clerk and your case will be assigned to a superior court judge.

After processing at the courthouse, the petition must be delivered to your spouse. The most common formal means of delivery is by having a private process server hand your spouse the petition and a summons. This is called "service." Service is essentially a document that tells your spouse a lawsuit has been filed, and there is a limited number of days in which a response must be made.


One or the other parties to the divorce lawsuit may feel a need for court orders between the date the divorce is filed and when the divorce is granted, which are called temporary orders that are effective while the divorce proceeds. In extreme circumstances, the court may consider (with or without notice to the other party) the granting of restraining orders, which not only have the powers of a court order, but can also get law enforcement involved if the orders are violated. Restraining orders can restrain a party's contact with the other party or restrain a party from taking certain actions.

Upon the filing of a new case in Whatcom or Skagit county, the court automatically enters temporary restraining orders that are applicable in ALL divorces and family law cases when they are filed. Not every county's court in Washington does so. Check with your lawyer so that you will know what you are prohibited from doing as soon as you file for a divorce.

Temporary orders can determine which spouse shall remain in the family home, mandate the payment of bills, the parenting plan (custody) and support of the children, attorney's fees, maintenance (alimony/spousal support), use and possession of property and other assets.

If an agreement is not reached with your spouse concerning temporary matters, it may be necessary for you to appear in court to resolve certain issues. A court commissioner will hear evidence at the temporary hearing and make the appropriate orders.


There are two categories of custody that define parental responsibilities. Physical custody pertains to the actual living arrangements and daily care of the children. Legal custody pertains to decision-making responsibilites such as medical and educational decisions. In Washington, the parenting plan specifies how these responsibilities will be allocated. The specific family situation will determine what the most appropriate provisions for a parenting plan should be. In most cases, the parents will share parental rights and duties.

An excellent explanation of parenting plans by a state with ample experience with them--Oregon-- is found at
"Family Law- Oregon Courts-Parenting Plan Information." The information is quite valid here for Washington cases.

In the absence of extenuating circumstances ( a history of family violence, for one), it is advisable for parents to work out appropriate custody arrangements rather than have strangers do it for them. A custody fight involves a great deal of time, commitment, and emotional and financial expense. In some instances, the child can be damaged more by the court action than the worst trait of the other parent. Further, you need to remember that your child's other parent will be a continuing part of your child's life and activities. It will be easier for your child if the child is kept out of the parents' conflict. This is not possible if a trial occurs. If you are able to reach an agreement, and make a commitment to work together to resolve disputes that may arise in the future, it is very probable that the child will be able to have both parents at the important events in the child's life. To emphasize the importance of parental cooperation, most Washington courts are now requiring all parents to attend parenting or divorce education classes before the court action can be finalized.

One difficult issue that comes up either at the time of a divorce or later is the relocation of the parent who desires to be awarded or is awarded primary physical custody of the child. This issue is decided by weighing a multitude of facts and factors to make an appropriate order that insures a quality relationship of both parents with the child, whether it is here or there.

Obviously, there are going to be situations where a custody fight is the only option. However, it is very important that you thoroughly discuss your concerns, options, and position with your attorney before making the decision to take this issue to trial.

In those cases where there are concerns over a parent's ability to appropriately care for the children, a guardian ad litem will generally be appointed to investigate such concerns and to assist the court in making a decision. A guardian ad litem's investigation will generally involve the review of informational data, gathering of references, and an interview of the parents. A report of the investigation and a recommendation on the parenting plan will generally be made to the Court at the conclusion of the investigation.


RCW 26.19 contains guidelines for the computation of child support. The computation considers the parties' income, the amount of children, the ages of the children, and other factors. The court may also order downward or upward deviations from the computed support depending on the specific circumstances of each case.

Net income is defined broadly, and income can also be imputed to a party.

In addition to monthly child support payments, the payor may be required to contribute to certain needs of the children including daycare and medical expenses.

Absent marriage or other acts which would emancipate the child, most child support orders continue until the child reaches age 18. If the child is in high school at age 18, support continues until high school graduation. If the child requires postsecondary education after the age of 18, the court can order the parents to contribute to the child's financial needs.


All orders concerning the children are modifiable in the future. Either parent can petition the court to change the parenting plan or child support at any time until the child is emancipated. The burdens of proof are different in each case, and sometimes are very difficult to establish. You should not enter into an agreement based on the assumption that it can always be modified later. You also should not enter into an agreement that you will pay no or a minimal amount of child support based on the assumption that a request for full child support will not be made later. CAUTION: Informal agreements between the parties are not binding on the court. If you rely on the agreement of your former spouse that you can pay a lesser amount of child support, you are likely to find yourself in contempt of court, as you have violated the child support order. If your former spouse agrees to give you primary possession of the children, and then demands return of the children several days later, you have no enforceable right to retain possession. If such agreements are reached, contact an attorney to have them reduced to the form of a court order.


Orders relating to parenting plan and of the children are enforceable by the court. Sanctions for non-payment of child support or failure to comply with the parenting plan include imprisonment. CAUTION: Please remember that the duty to pay child support and the parenting plan are independent concepts. If your spouse or former spouse does not allow you to see the children, you cannot refuse to pay child support. If your spouse or former spouse is not paying child support, you cannot refuse visitation rights with the children. Your remedy is to seek enforcement of the court order. If you violate the court order, your spouse can file an enforcement action against you. If you do not pay child support, the court can order jail time, garnishment of wages, and other onerous punishments. If you refuse to allow visitation, there are civil and criminal remedies available to the other parent. Additionally, the child's parent could seek modification of the child custody arrangement to decrease your rights.

In many cases, the court orders that the child support be paid to the Washington State Support Registry, who processes payments received and then forwards the payments on to the recipient of the payments. They collect the support and then distribute the payments received.


Relocation cases are difficult cases that mostly depend on the facts of the individual case. In parental relocation cases, the court considers many factors in deciding whether the child will move or not, including the motives behind the proposed move, the distance, the quality of the child's relationship with the stay-behind parent, how the move will affect the child, and ways to keep up the relationship with the left-behind parent after the move. To have a feel for the chances that a relocation of the child will--or will not--be allowed, it is mandatory that a parent --either wanting to move or resisting the move-- schedule an appointment with an experienced lawyer to go through the relevant facts.

In long distance, move away type of cases , establishing the parenting time, telephone contact, and traveling arrangements (as well as funding the long distance travel) are all factors that must be addressed.


Discovery is the process where one side learns from the other side what is relevant to the lawsuit. Some common formal discovery methods include depositions (oral testimony before a court reporter); interrogatories (written questions); requests for production of documents (such as tax returns, bank account records, deeds, vehicle titles, loan documents, credit card statements, etc.); or requests for admissions. Whether your lawyer utilizes these methods will depend on a number of factors that they will discuss with you. If you are served with discovery requests or a notice to take your deposition, your lawyer will guide you accordingly. Your lawyer learns from you what you know. Your lawyer can request from the other side that they disclose what they know as part of discovery requests. It is problematic trying to resolve a case without knowing the facts that are necessary to evaluate the case. A major issue in many cases involves the valuation of property and how to divide it. Discovery helps in understanding what the property is (or was or should be). You have to know what there is to divide before you decide how you would like to divide it. This often mandates the preparation of an inventory by both parties where each lists all the property and debts and their opinion of values and of claims, including any claims of separate property. Discovery may also be accomplished on a voluntary, or informal, basis. It is generally cheaper but there are some caveats of which your lawyer will be aware.


Once each side is fairly comfortable that they have enough information, obtained through discovery, probably including an inventory of the parties' property and debts, the parties should try to resolve their case, preferably by agreement.

In most cases, the parties will be required to attend a settlement conference before trial. A settlement conference is a meeting in which parties attempt to settle their case under the supervision of a judicial officer (usually a judge or court commissioner). As a general rule, the negotiations at a settlement conference are confidential and privileged.

If there are issues that cannot be settled, either party can request that the court set the case for trial. At the trial, the Court will hear all the proper evidence presented to it and will make a ruling, sometimes directly from the bench and sometimes after cogitating about the issues for a period of time.

The standard for the court to divide the community (marital) property and marital liabilities is that it must make a "just and equitable" division. The standard for the custody and other rulings concerning the children is "best interest." Obviously there can be a difference of opinion of what is "just and equitable" or in the "best interest."

The ruling in a trial, however initially announced by the judge, will eventually be put into a written Order usually called a Decree of Dissolution. It is the responsibility of the parties to produce the proposed written order, and after proper procedures have been followed, present it to the judge for signature.

Even if there is a complete agreement of the parties on all parts of the divorce action that are all contained in a proposed Agreed Decree of Dissolution (signed by all), at least one of the parties must appear before the judge and present the final orders. If the Judge determines that the final orders meet the legal requirements, the judge will sign the final orders. In most situations, this is the end of the divorce case.


Washington is a community property state, which means that all property and debt - no matter in whose name it is held - acquired during the term of the marriage, excluding inheritances and gifts, are considered marital property/debt.

All property and debt of the parties should be dealt with in the Decree of Dissolution. However, assigning responsibility for a debt to one party does not necessarily mean that the other party is released from responsibility for the debt.


The same provisions for marital liabilities apply to income taxes, except the Internal Revenue Service is a much more formidable creditor. It will be a rare case where you are not jointly and individually liable with your spouse for all taxes for any year in which you filed a joint return. This means the IRS can pursue collection actions against either or both spouses. Again, the terms of a decree ordering your spouse to pay all income taxes is not binding against the IRS, and does not prevent the assessment of penalties and interest. Further, the IRS is not restricted by state laws on exempt property. In some instances, they can obtain the sale of your homestead to satisfy payment of income taxes. Additionally, a debt owing to the IRS is ordinarily not discharged in bankruptcy.


Each party is responsible for their own attorney's fees and costs of litigation. It may be treated as a marital debt and divided like all other property--and debt-- in the divorce. The court also has the option to require one party to pay all or any part of the attorney's fees and costs for the other party depending on their respective financial resources and the facts of the case. Either party may request interim attorneys fees at a temporary hearing.


Washington courts have the authority to order spousal support (maintenance) after a divorce is granted. In Washington, maintenance is meant to be rehabilitative and designed to help the financially disadvantaged spouse get the training to support herself or himself. In very limited cases, the court can order permanent maintenance. While your case is pending, the court has the authority to award temporary maintenance.

The court will consider the needs of the requesting spouse and the ability of the other spouse to pay. The court will additionally consider the health and age of the parties, ability to work, responsibility for children, availability of funds, and the length of the marriage. As a general rule, temporary maintenance will be ordered for a limited period of time and in an amount necessary to cover the basic necessities of life.


You may request a change of your name as part of your divorce action. This is commonly done by women who wish to restore their maiden names. If you think you would like to change your name, it would best to do so as part of your divorce. As a separate lawsuit, the requirements are much stricter. A name change for a child is an uphill battle unless it is agreed.

This article is based on "How a Texas Divorce Case Works", originally created by The Law Offices of Raggio & Raggio, PLLC, Dallas, Texas.