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Divorce Attorneys Serving Seattle and Tacoma

Representing clients in all aspects of divorce

Going through a divorce can be among the most difficult experiences of a person’s life. In addition to the loss of what is often an individual’s primary relationship, people who decide to end their marriages can often lose their home, access to their children, and experience significant financial repercussions as well. Washington family law provides people who are married certain rights and responsibilities with respect to marital property, debts, and children, and it is extremely important for people who are considering ending their marriage to ensure that their divorce ends in the best way possible. With over 100 years of combined experience practicing law, the Dickson Frohlich Phillips Burgess law firm can help you with any matter related to divorce or another aspect of family law.

Marriage Defined

To understand divorce law in Washington state, It is important to first understand what is considered a marriage to begin with. RCW 26.04 is the statute which discusses the definition of marriage. It states that “[m]arriage is a civil contract between two persons who have each attained the age of 18 years, and who are otherwise capable (of entering into a marriage).” There exists some additional limits to the above, however, they are extremely rare. For instance, one cannot get married under Washington state law if they are already married to somebody. In addition, if there is consanguinity between the parties that is too close, that can prevent the marriage as well. (Consanguinity refers to being from the same or similar ancestor. In other words, Washington state prevents individuals from marrying each other if they are too closely related.)

What is a Divorce?

If a marriage is a ceremonial/civil contract between consenting adults, then a divorce is essentially a dissolution of that contract. There exists very little in the way of impediments when it comes to divorce. Years ago, the basis for the divorce used to be relevant, but now, there is virtually no way that one individual can prevent another from going through with a dissolution. Specifically, the requirements are that, at the time of the filing of the petition for the dissolution, the party must be a resident or domiciled in Washington state. In addition, the individual seeking the divorce must also have sufficient connection to the state such that it makes sense for the courts to oversee the dissolution. With the above in mind, the question of venue is clearly of particular relevance here. (Venue, within the context of the judicial system, refers to which county’s– i.e. King County, Pierce County, Thurston County, etc.–superior court will be used to facilitate the dissolution.) a counties venue is appropriate if it is the residence of the petitioning party, or the county where children reside, or are found, in the case of a child custody dispute.

Grounds for a Divorce (Dissolution)

As mentioned above, there is very little in the way of law which can compel a marriage to continue. All that is really needed to be established, is that the marriage is “irretrievably broken.” See Little v. Little, 95 WN. 2d 183 (1981). There are instances where considerations are made regarding fraud or coercion when it comes to a dissolution. However, those circumstances are extremely rare. In almost all circumstances that attorneys encounter, deal with individuals who entered into a marriage knowingly, and lawfully, and simply want to dissolve their marriage.

Divorce Attorney Basics

Seattle divorce attorneys perform similar functions to attorneys in other categories of law. The primary difference they face, however, is the inherently personal nature of the legal subject matter they are working with. Similar to attorneys who work within the criminal law realm, family law attorneys in Seattle rely heavily on the statutory mandates to guide them in representing their clients. While certainly all types of law have important implication for the clients effected by their dictates, the nature of family law is different. A family law attorney in Seattle must not only understand the legal realities impacting his or her clients, but also be sensitive to the underlying personal realities at stake between the parties who are dissolving their marriage. This is especially true considering that many marriages involve children, not to mention the mingling of assets (and liabilities) between the spouses. Dickson Frohlich Phillips Burgess’s Seattle family law practice is specifically designed to assist clients in both advocating for the legal rights of its clients, but also in helping them with making difficult decisions which are naturally impacted by the personally-connected elements of family law.

Divorce Process Overview

The law in Washington refers to divorce as a “dissolution” of marriage. Like other legal proceedings, a dissolution (divorce) follows a specific set of procedural steps. The purpose of these procedures is to assure that the legal process is applied consistently, and fairly, as between the divorcing spouses. Seattle family law attorneys must not only understand the core subject matter of their chosen category of law, but also be capable of facilitating the dissolution process within the required procedures outlined by law.

The following is a concise summary of the main steps of a dissolution:

Summons and Petition for Dissolution: To initiate a dissolution, a divorce lawyer must prepare a summons and petition for dissolution. A summons essentially serves as a formal notice to the responding party which outlines how to respond to the accompanying petition. This document is primarily procedural in its emphasis. A petition for dissolution, however, contains the core subject matter of the dissolution. It is within the petition that the details and conditions of the divorce are detailed. While the documents (summons and petition) are different documents, created for serving different purposes, they are one side of each coin needed to start the divorce process. It is imperative, that when looking to hire a divorce lawyer in Seattle, a prospective client is comfortable with both the process and subject matter of the dissolution.

Note: family law matters title their participants differently than in civil, and of course criminal, matters. Within a civil case, the complaint titles the petitioning party as the “plaintiff” and responding party as the “defendant.” For divorce attorneys, the designation of the spouse initiating the divorce is referred to as the “petitioner” while the other spouse is called the “respondent.”

Filing with the Superior Court and Service upon Respondent: Family law attorneys in Seattle (and the rest of the state, of course) know that the actual dissolution will only begin when the petition has been filed with the proper court, and service of process has been effectuated on the responding party. The summons and petition must be properly served following the methods and procedures prescribed within state law. While there are alternative methods of service, a Seattle family law attorney knows that personal service upon the responding spouse is the most effective method. This is typically done through a process server, who is essentially a professional that delivers summons and complaints (petitions, in his case) professionally.

Additional Forms: Unlike civil matters, additional forms are required by statute in order for the dissolution to proceed. Specifically, the divorce attorney must provide both a Vital Statistics Form, as well as Confidentiality Information Form.

Response/Counter Petition: Similar to other lawsuits, after the responding party has been served with the petition, he or she has an opportunity to respond. This is not mandatory, however. In other words, it is not uncommon for spouses to simply not respond, in which case, the dissolution (divorce) is considered “uncontested” and is subject to different procedural dictates.

Hearings: Given the nature of the dissolution process itself, there is a natural personal disruption that occurs. Consequently, courts allow for initial hearings to be held in order to determine key, short-term matters so that the dissolution itself can proceed. (For example, if the dissolution between the parties is particularly acrimonious, that it makes sense that provision be made to facilitate child visitation in as peaceful a situation as possible under the circumstances.) Below are the most-common of the temporary orders:

Temporary parenting plan. As the name suggests, a temporary parenting plan is a plan for how the parents are to “parent” the children from the marriage as the resolution of the divorce makes its way through the court process. These are not automatic. A parent who wishes to have the court recognize a temporary parenting plan order must first prepare and file a motion requesting that relief. In that request, the petitioning party must also include a proposed plan. Now, the responding party can cooperate, and agree to that plan by simply not contesting. However, if the responding parent wishes to propose a different plan he or she can do so in their responsive pleading. The plans proposed must have evidence that supports their plans, such as an outline of the schedules and availability of the parents and children.

(Note: even though this parenting plan is temporary in nature, there is a natural tendency by the court to follow it in its ultimate decision to establish a “permanent” parenting plan. Thus, it is vital that the Seattle divorce attorney you work with takes this initial step seriously.)

A common question that divorce attorneys hear regarding parenting plans, is how the court makes the determination between opposing plans? The short answer is that judges use the standard of what is in “best interests of the child.” Specifically, the court will look into all of the related evidence, including affidavits tendered by the parties, to make a judgment as to what how the parents and children should interact during the pending dissolution. These factors are important as they also are used to determine the eventual permanent parenting plan. Pursuant to RCW 26.09, there are two factors that are given particular attention: (1) if there is a difference between the parents and their responsibilities with the children, which one performs greater parenting functions related to the “daily needs” of the children, and (2) which arrangements will likely be the least disruptive to the children’s “emotional stability” while the action is pending.

Temporary restraining order. In addition to the above, courts often issue temporary restraining orders to separate or otherwise contain potentially-harmful conduct from one spouse towards another. These temporary restraining orders (or “TROs,” for short) can be concurrent with a variety of other orders. They specifically cover four categories of restrain-able conduct:

  • Protection of property — A TRO can be used to prevent a spouse from disposing of, or concealing, marital assets.
  • Protection of individuals — In the case of an ongoing physical molestation or “interference with the peace” of another individual, the court can restrain that activity.
  • Access to home – Similar to the protection of individuals and property, courts have the authority to temporarily limit an individual’s access to the family home (or any home for that matter).
  • Limiting travel with child – Courts can also limit the ability of a parent to remove a child from the jurisdiction of the court.

Temporary support. In familial relationships, earning money can often be an imbalanced endeavor, with the couple choosing to have one spouse focus on earning a livelihood, while the other focuses on domestic affairs (so to speak). In those instances, dividing the individuals with one spouse having been out of the workforce for a long stretch of time, is certainly unfair. Consequently, courts can also arrange for temporary support orders to level the economic playing field, so to speak.

As the divorce continues through to conclusion, these temporary orders are typically (though not always, depending on the circumstances) terminated.

Divisions of Assets

While Washington State is a “community property” state, in a divorce, courts are authorized to examine ALL the property owned by the parties, both separate AND marital. In statute, community property is defined in RCW 26.16.130 as “[p]roperty not acquired or owned, as prescribed in RCW 26.16.010 and 26.16.020, acquired after marriage or after registration of a state registered domestic partnership by either domestic partner or either husband or wife or both, is community property…”. Put simply, property obtained during the marriage that isn’t inheritance or a gift, belongs to the marital community, and property obtained as a gift or inheritance, property obtained prior to, or after separation, is considered separate property.

Determining separate and community property

It falls to courts to examine the property owned by the parties and disentangle the divorcing individuals’ assets and liabilities. RCW 26.09.080 outlines how is to be administered, and what factors the court takes into consideration to equitably allocate assets and liabilities:

In a proceeding for dissolution of the marriage or domestic partnership, legal separation, declaration of invalidity, or in a proceeding for disposition of property following dissolution of the marriage or the domestic partnership by a court which lacked personal jurisdiction over the absent spouse or absent domestic partner or lacked jurisdiction to dispose of the property, the court shall, without regard to misconduct, make such disposition of the property and the liabilities of the parties, either community or separate, as shall appear just and equitable after considering all relevant factors including, but not limited to:

(1) The nature and extent of the community property;

(2) The nature and extent of the separate property;

(3) The duration of the marriage or domestic partnership; and

(4) The economic circumstances of each spouse or domestic partner at the time the division of property is to become effective, including the desirability of awarding the family home or the right to live therein for reasonable periods to a spouse or domestic partner with whom the children reside the majority of the time.

The above factors are worth considering. While it is true that a court cannot legally consider separate property to be “community property” it is not prevented from taking it into account nevertheless. In other words, courts are free to approach the divorce process from a broad view, looking at the totality of the divorcing spouses’ circumstances, rather than being hemmed in by the strict application of a statutory provision.

While there are no hard-and-fast rules concerning the length of time required for spousal support, the court looks to statutory factors to determine its duration. See RCW 26.09.090. Without a contract or decree from the court, spousal maintenance terminates on one of three events:

  • Death (of either party;
  • Remarriage of the party receiving maintenance; or
  • Expiration of time required under the court order

See RCW 26.09.170 for statutory specifics on how maintenance support, property dispositions, and child support is determined.

Cooperative Approach

RCW 26.09.070 provides an option for divorcing couples to divide assets via a “Separation Contract.” The option is described in RCW 26.09.070(1):

(1) The parties to a marriage or a domestic partnership, in order to promote the amicable settlement of disputes attendant upon their separation or upon the filing of a petition for dissolution of their marriage or domestic partnership, a decree of legal separation, or declaration of invalidity of their marriage or domestic partnership, may enter into a written separation contract providing for the maintenance of either of them, the disposition of any property owned by both or either of them, the parenting plan and support for their children and for the release of each other from all obligation except that expressed in the contract.

These written separation contracts can provide for the following:

  • Spousal maintenance;
  • Disposition of property owned by both or either of them;
  • A parenting and child support plan;
  • Release of each other from ALL OTHER obligations not addressed within the contract.

This seems like an interesting option, to be sure, however, how can one be sure about the fairness of the arrangement? While such a contract is binding on the courts, there are recognized safeguards. For instance, the court is NOT bound by the exasperation agreement if it is “unfair” at the time of its execution. In addition, ALL of the assets of the parties must be identified sufficiently in order to allow for the court to determine whether the contract is valid.

Ultimately, these separation contracts will be incorporated into the court’s final divorce (dissolution) degree. When that occurs, the terms of the separation contract essentially become part of the judgment, with the same force and effect as though the judge pronounced those determination himself.

Prenuptial Agreement Interpretation

Prenuptial agreements are typically observed by courts, however, they are not free from scrutiny. Whether a prenuptial agreement is valid will depend on the following:

  • At the time of the execution of the prenuptial agreement, were the parties acting in good faith and fair dealing with each other? See RCW 26.16.210.
  • Was there “full” disclosure of the material facts relevant for the prenuptial agreement?
  • Finally, was there an opportunity for the executing spouses to obtain advice from an independent counsel on whether he or she should sign the agreement?

Child Support – Determining obligations of support for each parent

Whether in a marriage, or in the process of leaving one, state law considers BOTH parents to be responsible for the support of their children. RCW 26.16.205 provides as follows:

The expenses of the family and the education of the children, including stepchildren, are chargeable upon the property of both spouses or both domestic partners, or either of them, and they may be sued jointly or separately. When a petition for dissolution of marriage or state registered domestic partnership or a petition for legal separation is filed, the court may, upon motion of the stepparent, terminate the obligation to support the stepchildren. The obligation to support stepchildren shall cease upon the entry of a decree of dissolution, decree of legal separation, or death.

Even though both parents are responsible, there are often clear differences in capabilities for support. Washington adopted a basic schedule for child support which courts must follow. There are some factors, however, that courts may consider when determining support:

  • The amount of time a parent spent with the children during the marriage;
  • How much wealth the individual is in possession of;
  • Extremely high levels of debt owed by the parent;
  • Shared living arrangements;
  • Child income (when it is significant);
  • Significant disparities in costs of living (due to no fault of the particular parent);
  • The special needs of the children;
  • Tax planning;
  • Child support from another relationship;
  • Gifts or prizes;
  • Children from other relationships;

In short, while the legislature has outlined a baseline child support schedule, that is in now way inviolate. Depending on the conditions outlined above, a parent may ask the court for exemptions or revisions of the child support plan accordingly.

Note: Child support contracts do not bind or “limit” the court’s power to modify the provisions for child support. This is to be expected, as with the issue of children, the court’s concern is primarily regarding their welfare. (This is different than the above-referenced separation contract.

Termination of Child Support Obligations

RCW 26.09.170 outlines two specific bases for when a parent’s child support duties terminate:

Unless otherwise agreed in writing or expressly provided in the decree, provisions for the support of a child are terminated by emancipation of the child or by the death of the parent obligated to support the child.

Thus, barring a child basically becoming an adult, or the obliged parent dying, child support is a mandatory obligation as defined in the decree of dissolution.

CALL NOW AT 206-621-1110 (Seattle), 253-572-1000 (Tacoma), 360-742-3500 (Olympia), 971-416-0881 (Portland) FOR A PHONE CONSULTATION.

Obtaining a Washington no-fault divorce

Washington law also refers to divorce as the “dissolution of marriage.” In order to obtain a divorce, a party to a marriage must file a summons for the other party and petition the court to dissolve the marriage. In Washington, a spouse does not need to show wrongdoing on the part of the other spouse, but rather that the relationship is “irretrievably broken.” As a result, this type of divorce is referred to as a “no-fault” divorce. Washington has a mandatory three-month waiting period, which means that at least 90 days must pass between the time that the summons is served on a spouse and the time when the judge signs a divorce decree.

Divorce can implicate a number of ancillary issues

Finalizing a Washington State divorce is rarely as simple as dissolving the legal marriage bond. Often, married couples have accumulated significant assets, started a business together, had children, or purchased a family home. Our attorneys can help ensure your rights are protected in all of these and other matters, including:

Property Division – Under Washington State law, property accumulated during a marriage may be either separate or community property, and its designation has a significant impact as whether it will be among the property that is divided between the couple. The types of assets that can be divided include bank accounts, business interests, real estate, and personal property.

Spousal support – Also referred to as “maintenance,” spousal support may be awarded in cases in which one party has a financial need and the other has an ability to pay. These determinations are often very fact specific, and the assistance of an attorney can have a significant impact on whether spousal support is awarded.

Contested child custody – In many cases, the issue of where children that the couple had together will live becomes a highly contested issue. Courts have wide discretion in awarding child custody, so it is important for people who are involved in a child custody dispute to present the strongest case possible on their behalf.

Restraining orders – Sometimes the breakdown of a marriage is precipitated by domestic abuse on the part of one or both spouses. In these cases, a person seeking a divorce may also want to obtain a restraining order against the other party in order to ensure their physical safety.

Contact a Seattle and Tacoma divorce law firm today for a consultation

Divorce can be a difficult and confusing process, and no one should have to go through it alone. Our lawyers provide individualized and compassionate representation and counsel while aggressively defending your legal rights. We have offices in both Tacoma and Seattle and will help you bring your divorce case to the best resolution possible.

CALL OUR OFFICES NOW AT 206-621-1110 (Seattle), 253-572-1000 (Tacoma), 360-742-3500 (Olympia), 971-416-0881 (Portland) TO SCHEDULE YOUR PHONE CONSULTATION.