Dissolving the Relationship: Divorce, Separation, and Ending Non-Marriage Relationships

Washington has several different ways of defining the legal rights and responsibilities of couples in long-term relationships.  The clearest and most common definition is marriage, where the couple has a marriage license issued by a government body or official.  All marriages legally entered into in the United States are valid in Washington, including same-sex marriages. Most marriages from other countries are valid in Washington, with the possible exception of marriages from other countries that would be illegal in Washington, such as multiple spouses or marriages where one or both spouses are younger than the minimum age of consent in Washington.

Washington also has Registered Domestic Partnerships for some couples, which currently grants all of the rights and responsibilities of marriage.  Washington has now expanded marriage to include same-sex couples.  Registered Domestic Partnerships are only available to couples where one or both partners are over 65 (whether same-sex or opposite-sex partnerships).

To end a marriage or a Registered Domestic Partnership, you must go through a divorce proceeding in court, known in Washington as a Dissolution. (The same process is used for legal separation, discussed below.) Dissolutions are filed in a county Superior Court. There is a minimum 90-day waiting period before a dissolution can be granted. The 90 days starts when the petition for dissolution is filed with the court and served on the opposing party (the other spouse/partner). However, you should expect the process to take much longer than 90 days. Most dissolutions take at least a year to finalize.

Legal Separation

The process for obtaining a legal separation through a court decree is basically the same as filing for dissolution, but the result is not a full dissolution – the couple remains married or domestically partnered, but debts and assets are divided, and a parenting plan and child support order are put in place if the couple has minor children.  Some couples seek a legal separation to provide protection from debt accrual, because one partner’s debts acquired after separation are solely that partner’s responsibility, instead of the debt being community property.  Some couple may have religious reasons for not divorcing, but the parties still want to be legally separated.

A decree of legal separation can later be converted to a dissolution by either party by filing a simple petition with Superior Court.

A legal separation should not be confused with the “date of separation” that you put on the court forms. When a couple stops living together or breaks up, the court may consider that the date of separation to determine who is responsible for which debts and whose assets belong to whom. A legal separation requires a decree of separation from a court.

Dissolving Non-Marriage Intimate Domestic Relationships

Washington State does not recognize “common-law marriage”. However, in some cases where a couple has lived together for a long time as a couple but has never formally married or registered as domestic partners, the courts can enter orders that mirror the orders in a dissolution. This situation used to be called “meretricious relationships” but is more commonly referred to now by courts as the “law of intimate relationships.”  These cases are heard in family court just like divorces, but don’t have standard forms from the court.  The usual method for getting the court to hear your case in these situations is to file what is known as a “Connell Petition” after a Supreme Court case that dealt with dissolution of marriage-like relationships.

If you have questions about dissolving this kind of relationship, you should speak with a family law attorney who has expertise in filing Connell petitions and related documents.

Gathering Documents for Your Case

Before you begin your dissolution case, there is a lot of information you will have to gather. Getting your documents together in advance will save you a lot of stress once the case gets rolling.

  • Tax returns for at last the past two years for both parties (if taxes were filed separately)
  • Pay stubs or other documentation of wages for both parties
  • Proof of the amount you or the other party may receive for any pensions, Social Security, or social services such as Food Stamps.
  • Documentation of any retirement or pension plans for both parties
  • List of all debts including:
    • The name of the creditor (for example, Bank of America, Sallie Mae, IRS tax debt, Mortgage, Car Loan, etc.)
    • The name(s) on the debt (both parties or just one?)
    • The amount of each debt
    • Specific numbers to identify the debt (account number, credit card number, etc.)
  • Date of marriage, date of separation (when you moved into separate living quarters or otherwise took some step to break up the relationship)
  • Names and ages of all children under 18 of either spouse – not only kids you have together, but also step-children or children from other relationships. The court will want to know whether either spouse is financially and legally responsible for any minor children.
  • Clear description of any real estate owned (the legal description is available for free on-line through county auditors; the legal description includes more than just the street address.)
  • List of any vehicles owned (cars, boats, motorcycles) with the VIN number, make and model, and year of manufacture. (for example: “2003 Nissan Stanza, VIN 4445556667777”)
  • The amount you pay each month for basic living expenses (rent/mortgage, child care, transportation, utilities, health care, etc.)

Once you have gathered all your documents and filled out your court forms, MAKE COPIES! Generally, you will need four copies of every document: two for the court, one for you, and one for your spouse.  Get a binder and keep all your papers in order, neat and clean.

Starting your case: Filing the Forms and serving the Other Party

Once the papers are filed, you must file tem with the court clerk, and you must generally have the paperwork “served” on your spouse. Generally, you may not serve the papers yourself; you must have someone 18 years or older serve the papers on your spouse. There are services that will do this for a fee, as will many sheriff departments, but anyone over the age of 18 who is not a party to the case can serve the papers.  However, if your spouse agrees to accept the paperwork and signs an “acceptance of service” form, you can serve the paperwork yourself.  Or, if you and your spouse already agree to everything in the paperwork filed with the court, your spouse can sign a “joinder” either before or after the papers are filed, meaning he or she “joins” in the suit. If you have a signed joinder, you do not have to formally serve the papers.

The court will always want proof that the papers were properly served or that a joinder was signed, so make sure you fill out and file the proper forms with the court.

Restraining Orders

Often the court will issue a restraining order upon the request of either party when dissolution papers are filed.  Most commonly, this type of order restrains both parties from making major unilateral decisions about debts and assets while the dissolution is in process.  A restraining order may prohibit one party from selling the family home, or buying an expensive new car before the marriage is final.  The court basically wants the financial situation to stay as stable as possible while the dissolution is in process.

These types of restraining orders are different from protection orders or no-contact orders, though all of those are often commonly called “restraining orders”.  Information on protection orders is included in the Domestic Violence section below.

Dividing Property, Assets, and Debts

The court will determine how to divide up debts and assets either based on what you and your spouse file with the court, or through other evidence presented to the court through testimony.  The court will determine what is a fair distribution of debts and assets and may consider factors such as where assets came from (earned through employment, from investments, inheritance, etc.), what the debts were for (medical expenses, vehicles, property, school).  If either party has a pension or retirement savings, the court may order how those assets will be divided in the future when the parties retire.

Alimony or Maintenance

In Washington, alimony is called “spousal maintenance”. It is not easy to have maintenance awarded. The spouse asking for maintenance must show the court that the other spouse has the ability to pay, that the requesting spouse has the need for maintenance, and that maintenance will only go on for a specific amount of time. For example, if you stayed home and cared for the kids while your spouse got a medical degree, and he or she is now making tons of money, the court may award maintenance while you go to school to get a degree of your own to support yourself. Maintenance cannot be awarded as a way to try and punish one spouse. The court will assume that both spouses will eventually support themselves just as any single person is expected to.