Ending Your Marriage And Planning For The Future

Family law issues can be some of the most stressful. Our attorneys offer support throughout these demanding times and provide the skilled representation that you need. We will fight to ensure that all financial obligations regarding child support are handled properly and make certain that any custody disputes are handled with care and compassion. The best interests of your child will always be our top priority.

Regardless of the circumstances, dissolving your marriage can be emotionally and psychologically challenging. Family law has many dimensions and is influenced by legal as well as social and economic factors. Laws affecting relationships may change as traditions and attitudes evolve. Because these laws are complex and subject to change, you need legal advice.

Ending a marriage may be a particularly upsetting event, involving many uncertainties and emotions. If separation or dissolution is unavoidable or in your best interest, a lawyer can guide you in protecting your rights.

How Can A Marriage Be Ended?

Various procedures may be used to end a marriage that breaks down, including annulment, separation and dissolution.

Annulment is a court-ordered dissolution of an invalid marriage. Technically called a "decree of invalidity," it nullifies a marriage from its inception and is granted in situations where no valid marriage exists because of some legal defect.

A separation may be formalized with a legal contract, a "decree of legal separation" or both. A legal separation may be preferred to a dissolution for religious, economic or other reasons. A couple may decide to live apart while attempting to save a faltering relationship, or the separation may be an interim step toward termination of the marriage. (There is no legal requirement for actual separation before dissolving a marriage.)

Oral or written understandings concerning property disposition, arrangements for children or maintenance or other agreements made while separated may become part of a dissolution proceeding.

If a marriage falls apart and is considered "irretrievably broken," one or both partners may seek a dissolution of the relationship. This court proceeding legally terminates a marriage and makes provisions for the parenting of minor children, family support, and division of property and liabilities.

In Washington, a spouse does not have to prove wrongdoing to obtain a divorce (now legally called a "dissolution of marriage"). This no-fault system is intended to help spouses settle matters without unnecessary bitterness and resentment.

What Are The Legal Procedures?

Ending a marriage involves many legal considerations. Technically, an attorney is not required for the process, but a lawyer's skill and experience can be helpful to a person contemplating separation or divorce. A lawyer's advice may be especially beneficial in cases that are contested or that involve children and property settlements. To start a dissolution proceeding, one spouse (called the "petitioner") must file with the court a summons and "petition" for dissolution of marriage.

Once known as the "complaint," this document is then served on the other spouse (known as the "respondent"), usually by having copies delivered to him or her. Although there is no major legal significance as to whether the husband or wife files the petition, there may be emotional or procedural advantages.

The purpose of the summons is to command the responding spouse to reply to the petition. Basic facts about the marriage are contained in the petition, which also specifies what the petitioning spouse wants in the way of a parenting plan, property division and support. Once served and depending on the recipient's location (whether in-state or elsewhere), the responding spouse has from 20 to 60 days to reply in writing to the petition. This reply, called a "response," may include a "counter-petition" and states the respondent's position on children, property and support.

In many situations, the next step is to arrange temporary orders to guide the conduct of the parties. Either spouse may obtain temporary orders. Typically, the requests cover such subjects as residential arrangements for the children and child support, spousal maintenance, occupancy of the family home, payment of bills and other concerns for protecting people or preserving property. If the spouses cannot agree on temporary orders, a court hearing with a judge or court commissioner will be held to establish necessary requirements.

To settle any immediate problems in a dissolution action, a "show cause" proceeding may be requested by either spouse. This proceeding is initiated by obtaining a court order that requires your spouse to show cause why you should not be granted the relief you are requesting. At the same time, the court can also immediately restrain your spouse from harassing you, entering your home, taking children out of state, disposing of property or incurring any unusual debts. Other restraints may also be imposed in exceptional circumstances. A hearing is held (usually about two weeks after the show cause order is issued) to decide most requests. Attendance by spouses is recommended, but not usually required if both parties are represented by attorneys.

All issues must be settled to finish a case. If terms cannot be negotiated between spouses, a trial will be held to decide any disputes. If spouses agree on a settlement and no aspect of the dissolution is contested, the case does not have to go to trial.
The final stage occurs when the court signs a "decree of dissolution of marriage." Settlements negotiated between spouses are presented in writing for approval by the court and signature by the judge. If the case requires a trial, the judge's decision is recorded in writing and signed by the judge. A marriage is not dissolved until the judge signs the decree.

What About The Children?

Washington law requires a parenting preliminary proceeding for annulment, legal separation or marital dissolution involving minor children. The terms "child custody" and "visitation" are no longer used in Washington dissolution law. Instead, the parents by agreement (or the court in the event of a dispute) must develop a parenting plan or residential schedule.

The parents may make an agreed parenting plan or each parent may propose opposing plans. The court considers the best interests of the children in determining how to provide for the children.

Every parenting plan must contain at least the following elements:

  • A schedule for residential care
  • Allocation of responsibility for parental decision-making
  • Provisions for the resolution of future disputes between the parents with respect to parenting decisions

The law includes provisions for the protection of children from parental abuse or neglect, from continued exposure to domestic violence, from the abusive use of parental conflict, and from other types of conduct that the court finds to be adverse to the child's best interests.

What About Child Support?

Both parents have a duty to support their children. Child support is based on the Washington Child Support Schedule, which considers the total cost of providing a home for the children and of taking care of them in all ways, as well as each parent's respective share of that cost, in accord with their incomes.

Child support is subject to periodic modification to meet changes in the children's needs, as well as changes in each parent's ability to pay. Child support payments are usually required until a child is 18 years old or graduates from high school, whichever occurs last, although circumstances may affect the duration of the support obligation. For example, if a child under the age of 18 gets married or otherwise becomes emancipated or self-supporting, the court may terminate parental obligation for the support.

Post-secondary support may also be required for a dependent's child's college or vocational education expenses or for a handicapped child. Support may be required as long as the child remains dependent.

What About Spousal Support?

Spousal maintenance may be awarded when there is need on the part of one spouse and ability to pay by the other.

Once called "alimony," spousal support is now referred to as "maintenance." It will not be awarded or withheld as punishment for marital misconduct. The duration and amount depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case.

In determining the need for maintenance and the appropriate duration and amount, the court will consider:

  • The financial resources of each party
  • The work experience and earning prospects of each spouse, including consideration of the time required for one spouse to obtain training to become employed or self-supporting
  • The age and physical and emotional conditions of each party
  • The duration of the marriage and the standard of living established during the marriage

How Is Property Divided?

There is no fixed method for determining how property should be divided. In Washington, all assets — real and personal, tangible and intangible — are available for distribution. As a community property state, Washington laws provide for "just and equitable" division of property acquired during a marriage, but not necessarily an equal division. Under some circumstances, the court may also apportion separate (or individual) property.
If the husband and wife negotiate an agreement, the court will probably approve it. If no settlement is reached, the court will decide how to divide the property. Property settlement agreements are binding and generally cannot be modified.

Property division is generally made without regard to marital misconduct; instead, a court considers:

  • The nature and extent of community property
  • The nature and extent of separate property
  • How long the parties were married
  • The financial position of each party: whether each spouse is employed and self-supporting; entitlements to Social Security and profit-sharing plans
  • Who is going to pay the bills
  • Special circumstances

A special provision of Washington law requires the court to consider whether a parent should be allowed to continue living in the family home so the children do not have to move.

Qualified Representation From Experienced Lawyers

We have been representing the residents of Spokane and eastern Washington since John ("Jack") Cooney first began his solo law practice nearly 70 years ago. Today we are proud to carry on the tradition of experienced legal service in criminal defense, personal injury, estate planning, family law, and employment law.

To see how the divorce attorneys at Cooney Law Offices, P.S., can help in your case, contact us online or call us at 509-703-6643 and schedule an initial consultation in our Spokane office.