Grounds. Washington has adopted the concept of "no fault" divorce, now called "dissolution of marriage," making it unnecessary to prove specific grounds in order to obtain a divorce (e.g. abuse or adultery). One party must simply state to the Court that the marriage is "irretrievably broken" because of discord or conflict that destroys the viability of the marriage relationship and prevents any reasonable expectation of reconciliation.
Legal Separation. A Decree of Legal Separation, similar to a Decree of Dissolution, results in a division of assets and debts, provisions for custody, child support and maintenance. However, a legal separation leaves the parties still "technically" married. A legal separation may be useful in some instances, such as for religious reasons where a party does not morally believe in divorce, or to resolve financial issues to settle marital discord. This letter, while focusing on dissolution proceedings, provides many principals which apply equally to legal separation proceedings.
Residence Requirements. Prior to filling your Petition for Dissolution, you generally must be a resident of the State of Washington on the day the Petition was filed and reside with your spouse in the county in which you and your spouse would like to file the petition (unless otherwise agreed).
Starting the Proceedings. The first step is the preparation and filing of a Petition. The Petition states the names and ages of the parties and all children born to or adopted by either party, when and where you married and when you separated; that the residence requirement has been satisfied; and that your marriage is irretrievably broken. It also asks the Court to provide for maintenance and child support, visitation, property division, attorney's fees and court costs.
Actual Separation. There is no legal requirement for actual physical separation before filing the Petition.
Who Should File. There is no legal significance as to who files the Petition, although there may be procedural and tactical advantages for the Petitioner.
Waiting Period. No dissolution can be granted until at least 90 days has passed following the date of filing the Petition or service upon the other spouse, whichever occurs later. This is a minimum interval. Our experience indicates a normal interval of about 95 days for uncontested dissolutions and up to 12 months for contested dissolutions. During the waiting period we will be trying to help you work out the details of custody, visitation, support and property settlement.
Service or Acceptance. After the Petition is filed, the other spouse must receive proper notification. One way to do this is to ask a process server to hand deliver a copy of the Petition to that spouse. An alternative way is to have that spouse sign a document called an Acceptance of Service. An Acceptance of Service acknowledges receipt of a copy of the Petition.
Custody/Parenting Plan. The parent who provides the primary nurturing care to the children will usually be awarded custody. This parent is now called the "primary residential parent" or "custodian." The parents must prepare a Parenting Plan, in which they may be assisted by a Guardian Ad Litem or terms may be decided by a judge. Disagreement over the Parenting Plan is often the source of extensive litigation costs and fees, so amicable agreement in this regard is highly advisable.
If you and your spouse can agree to details of the Parenting Plan, the Court will usually approve the parenting plan which you have worked out. A typical visitation pattern is to visit on alternating weekends, some weeks in the summer, some time around birthdays, Christmas and other holidays, plus additional or different times as you may agree upon. We encourage cooperation to provide liberal visitation, except in extraordinary circumstances.
Child Support. The State of Washington developed a Support Schedule based on the net income of both parents. Except in extraordinary circumstances, this schedule must be followed. In arriving at a fair amount, you should consider the needs of the children and the financial picture and earnings of each parent. The Court can require support of a normally healthy child during dependency, which may extend beyond the age of 18, to finish high school or for college or trade school expenses. If you have a child with a mental or physical disability, be sure to let us know, as support may continue for a longer period.
Property Division. A division of property must be "fair, just and equitable." There is no fixed way to determine how you or the Court should divide the property. Debts as well as assets must be considered. Other factors include the nature and extent of the property and whether it is community property or separate property; the duration of the marriage; and the economic circumstances of each spouse. Generally, community property will be equally divided, regardless of which spouse contributed or earned the most to acquire it. Misconduct is not a factor in awarding property. If you and your spouse can agree, and if your agreement is reasonable, it will be granted by the Court. If you cannot agree, the Court will divide the property.
Temporary Relief. If your spouse is being physically abusive to you or the children, refuses to provide reasonable support, refuses to give you information concerning property, or refuses to permit reasonable visitation, the Court will hear your requests and determine if you will get this relief while the case is pending. The Court will restrain you both from physical abuse of each other or of the children. The Court will also provide for custody and visitation and support of the children. If you feel you will need this sort of temporary relief, be sure to let us know immediately.
Uncontested Dissolution. Your dissolution will be contested unless you and your spouse agree that a dissolution should be sought and agree to all aspects of custody, visitation, support, property settlement, and the payment of liabilities, attorney's fees and court costs. If your spouse disputes any of these matters, or retains an attorney, you do not have an uncontested dissolution and a trial may be necessary.
Alimony/Maintenance. Washington courts rarely grant extensive maintenance (alimony) following a dissolution. The individual circumstances of the spouses determine this, including especially the length of relationship. It is possible for a spouse to obtain income tax advantages by agreeing on payments which can qualify as alimony. The award of Temporary Maintenance is not determinative of a final order of maintenance in this matter and neither the parties nor the Court shall be constrained thereby under the tax laws.
Reconciliation. Sometimes dissolution seems to be the only solution. Often it is not. After a dissolution action is commenced, you or your spouse may change your mind and decide to try to work things out. Our policy is to encourage efforts toward reconciliation, and if you decide to drop the dissolution action, you will owe only for those services actually performed up to that time.
Mediation. Court rules require mediation in all dissolution cases before trial. Our office also encourages mediation rather than expensive and protracted litigation.
Change of Name. A wife's former name may be returned to her as part of the final Decree at no additional charge. We generally suggest that this be limited to the restoration of the maiden name when there are no children or that of a former marriage. If you want this service, you must let us know before we prepared the Petition.
Final Decree of Dissolution. If there is no appeal, your dissolution will be final the day it is granted in Court and filed with the court clerk.
Remarriage. You may marry immediately after the dissolution is final.
General Suggestions. Your friends and family will likely offer you advice about your case. While well intentioned, please be very careful about such advice, as it is frequently not accurate. The facts surrounding the dissolution of every marriage are unique. Please also note that dissolution proceedings can be very emotional - we will attempt at every juncture to reduce hostility so that, especially where children are involved, you and your spouse may move on with your lives in a productive and healthy manner.