Divorce Laws in Washington State: 12 Surprises

by Samuel K. Darling, Genesis Divorce & Family Law Attorney

12 Surprising Divorce Laws & Facts from Washington State

Curious about divorce laws in Washington State? Here are 12 that might surprise you. If you’d rather read than watch the video, scroll down.

1) Adultery Doesn’t Matter

Look like a child if argue adultery in a Washington divorce
Don’t bring up adultery in court

The first surprising law: adultery really doesn’t matter when determining who should have custody of the children, whether to award spousal maintenance (alimony), or division of property. Washington is a no-fault state. Many litigants who don’t have an experienced attorney get caught off-guard by this. They commonly bring up the other side’s infidelity when trying to argue for various types of relief in court. Unfortunately for them, this tends to upset the judge rather than help.

Adultery CAN be relevant in a divorce case, but rarely. The exception is an argument for “waste”, when one of the parties spent large amounts of money on an affair and the innocent party seeks reimbursement for half of the wasteful spending.

2) Who Has Kids Most During Separation Wins Custody

If the parties informally separate before receiving a court-ordered parenting plan, whoever had the children most during the informal separation will almost certainly win custody. This often applies when a chivalrous husband decides to move out of the home as the parties begin to break up. Being the chivalrous one, he leaves the children in the family home with the wife. The court will often assume that that informal period of separation speaks louder than anyone’s words in a subsequent argument about who should receive custody. The person who had the kids most during the separation – the mom in this instance – is almost certainly going to win primary care of the children in a custody battle.

For more, read our firm’s article on how to win custody.

3) Pets are Just Property

Pets Are Property?! Bah

A judge will usually treat pets as property rather than perform a custody analysis. That seems wrong to many people who have pets, but the law’s the law. If you’d like to learn about the basics of Washington’s property division laws and norms, we have an article on the subject. We also have a much more in-depth article on the specifics of Washington’s community property laws.

4) Okay to Evade Someone Serving Divorce Documents

Surprising law number four: evading Service of Process isn’t against any rules or laws. In other words, if someone is trying to serve divorce papers upon the other spouse, it’s okay for the spouse who’s being served to try to hide, run away, or otherwise avoid being served with the divorce documents. There’s no rule saying that you can’t try to avoid initial Service of Process.

That said, you might not look good in the courts eyes if you’re evading Service of Process; and chances are, you’ll eventually get served anyway. Our firm advises clients to cooperate.

5) Can Use Trickery to Serve Divorce Documents

You can trick someone to serve him or her with documents in a case. Let’s say you want to serve someone who isn’t opening the door or maybe the person is trying to hide in a different state or community, you can use trickery to make the person answer the door or admit where they are.

Law doesn't prohibit you from tricking someone in an effort to serve him or her
Can Trick to Serve

There’s an especially common trick employed by professional process servers. They will go to the location of the person who is to be served and pretend to be delivering a parcel, maybe for Amazon or some other delivery service. Usually the process server has a box, wrapped just like something that’s been sent in the mail, and they’ll say that they have a delivery. When the person who’s to be served opens the door, they serve the legal documents.

A word of warning: if you’re going to serve someone through trickery, do NOT impersonate a police officer or a fireman. That would be illegal.

6) WA Will Divorce People Married by Common Law

Washington will recognize common law marriage in some instances. For those who aren’t aware, common law marriage is when parties live together like a married couple for a very long time and the rules of the state will treat them as if they are married even if they never went through the actual marriage process. Washington is not a common law marriage state. But Washington will recognize a common-law marriage that occurred in a common-law marriage state.

For instance, lets assume parties live together like a married couple for 20 years in Montana, which is a common-law marriage state. Washington would recognize that couple as being married for purposes of getting divorce in Washington. If however, the parties were living together like a married couple in WASHINGTON for those 20 years, they would not be treated as common-law married.

7) Washington’s Version of Common Law Marriage: Committed Intimate Relationship

Washington has a corollary to common-law marriage. If a couple lives in Washington for years as if they were married, we deem them to have a committed intimate relationship. Washington will allow them to dissolve the relationship and divide their property almost as if the parties had been married.

There is a significant difference between a regular divorce and a committed intimate relationship that’s being dissolved. That large difference is spousal maintenance (alimony). Judges in Washington will not award maintenance in the case of a dissolution of a committed intimate relationship.

8) Divorce Usually Takes a Year

Surprising law or fact number eight: it takes almost a full year for the average person to get divorced in Washington State. It’s a long process, a lot longer than most people think.

9) 91 Days Is the Fastest You Can Get Divorced

The fastest a person can get divorced in Washington is 91 days. That’s true even if the parties agree to get divorced and agree on all the aspects of the divorce, such as who gets the kids and what property, how much child support should be, etc. Washington will not allow them to get divorced any faster than 91 days no matter what. Washington has what’s called a 90-day cooling-off period to make sure the parties truly want to be done with each other.

Divorce laws require people to "cool off" for 90 days before being granted a divorce

10) You Can Be Done In Less Than 90 Days If You Don’t Call It a Divorce

You can essentially get divorced in Washington almost immediately, without having to wait for the 90-day cooling-off period. That is if you call your divorce a “legal separation“. You can get a legal separation often the same day you petition if the parties agree on the terms.

11) Legal Separation Almost Same as Divorce

In Washington, a legal separation is essentially the same as a divorce. It’s just a difference in terminology for most intents and purposes.

Admittedly, there are some differences, and some of those differences can be significant for some people. Most notably, if you have a legal separation, you can’t get married to someone until you convert your legal separation to a divorce.

But in most other respects a divorce and a legal separation are the same: the same substantive laws, the same procedures, the very same kind of trial at the end of the case, and the very same kinds of documents and relief. You get a decree, a division of all the parties’ property, a parenting plan, a child support order, and potentially spousal maintenance (alimony). If you’d like to learn more about the differences between legal separation and divorce, we have another article on the subject.

12) Can “Impute” People with $ They Don’t Have

The 12th and final surprising law on our list: Washington allows judges to impute a party who is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed. This is for purposes of child support calculations, and sometimes for purposes of maintenance calculations and property division. “Imputation” means the court treats a party as if he or she has income, even when the party doesn’t truly have it. The most common example of imputation occurs when someone quits his or her job to make it look as if he or she is penniless and unable to pay child support. The court will deem that party as having the income he or she would have had, had he or she not quit.

Now that you’ve heard about imputation, you might say it makes perfect sense. But there are some very surprising ways courts have applied this doctrine.

Washington's divorce laws impute someone who goes back to school
Will impute someone who goes back to school

For example, the courts have said that if a person goes back to school to get a degree, that person should be imputed even if he or she is doing it for purposes of making a better life for the parties’ child.

Another interesting imputation example, the law says that if a party voluntarily reduces his or her hours in order to care for the children at home, he or she should still be imputed. (After a long-term marriage, however, the court must not impute a lifelong stay-at-home spouse until he or she has had time to get back on his or her feet financially.)

For More Info

So that’s it, all twelve of the surprising laws on our list.

Our firm believes in free access to information, and we have numerous articles, guides, and videos on our website regarding most divorce topics. If you would like to read or see those, visit the resources section of our website.


Comment below to tell us and other readers about our article(s), how we can improve them, and additional topics you would like our article(s) to address.

12 thoughts on “Divorce Laws in Washington State: 12 Surprises”

  1. I have a question…
    My husband bought a house over two years ago
    And insisted I sign a quit claim deed to the new purchased property due to my credit and is wantion a low va mtg payment.
    In a divorce what rights do I have?
    I pay my way in cash, do all housekeeping and cooking
    Can I claim this service work in a divorce?
    We’ve been married 45 years and I’m still a pretty slender
    77 y/I woman

    1. Hi Anna, I’m sorry, this comments section is only supposed to be about the articles rather than advice on the facts of a person’s particular circumstances. You might be able to find answers to your questions in our firm’s articles on 1) spousal maintenance and 2) community property. If we didn’t address a topic or could do a better job, don’t hesitate to post another comment. We’re often willing to update articles or write on new topics.

  2. NeedDivoce123

    I have filed a divorce and served papers to my spouse, we dont have parenting plan and custody of our kids finalized yet. We currently live in the same home, which eventually my spouse wants to keep it, I do want to move to apartment with kids having temporary parenting plan in place, before any decision on our divorce, can I do that legally? If yes – which forms
    should I fill up 1. To get temporary parenting plan order which will give opportunity to my spouse to spend time with kids and me to move out of this home and move away from my spouse 2. To move from our current home to an apartment with my kids.

    I dont have any attorney and my spouse has hired attorney from his side. I dont want to loose custody of my kids. Please help!

  3. Bridget Hopper

    I thought I read in one of this sites comments that if a openly flaunts his affair and the adulterous relationship was accompanied by abuse in the marriage you can use his behavior to influence the the financial terms of the divorce settlement. Is that the case or where can I find more information on this ?

    1. Jessica Montague

      My husband constantly says if we divorce the court will take away our child because we are on social security . For some reason he gets the child how do I know if that’s true or he is just saying that to make me stay?

  4. Hi. My husband recently told me that he divorced me 4 years ago. I had no idea. In the four years we even went to Hawaii for our anniversary. Since he told me I have gone to stay with my mom is Colorado. Is there anything I can do?

  5. If my husband and I filed legal separation and were apart for almost the full 3 months do we have to wait for the cooling period again?

  6. Hello,

    I have been married for less than 1-year with my spouse and plan to get a divorce. Will the division of all properties still apply given the time invested?

  7. How would a divorce be handled if one spouse leaves to live in a separate state before the finalization of the divorce?

  8. Restraining order against me and because of lack of income I had to let go of attorney I’ve run into issues. After I refi house and paid her her 90k she finally left house and took all items of any worth. On top of that this year I was off on medical for most part only receiving a quarter of my regular pay. Can I take her back to court on items she took and any way some of somehow correcting payments for this past rears support?

  9. Spanked by wife

    How come only one post the first here was responded to and said they cant respond, I understand that as she was getting into some pretty detailed items, but after that, no one has responded to these questions below hers. whats Up here?

  10. Completely screwed over in my wa state divorce. Ex wife called the cops on me twice for no reason. I’ve never hurt a fly. That put 2 domestic violence arrests on me when I never raised my voice toward her let alone any physical contact of any kind. I had a broken elbow from work and received LNI time loss. My ex was a banking executive making over $100,000 a year yet the judge imputed me for a ton of money never setting another future hearing to see if the elbow healed or to see if I was able too work again. We have 2 children. Too make matters way worse, she had been planning to end our 11 year marriage for sometime apparently and it was all new to me. She had a team of divorced, viscious women that knew all the tricks to hurt and crush a man that cared for and loved his wife and family dearly. She infiltrated my family and when I went to them for support all I heard was”get over it”. Which i never have. She even got my brother to make an attempt at taking my life for crying out loud. It gets worse. But my guts hurt. A guitar player and music lover, she destroyed music for me to the point where all music made me cry. And TV shows and commercials got me right in the gut and had me crying for years. I still haven’t gotten over the abusive treatment by her with the courts seal of approval. She just bought a huge gorgeous home on the big island in Hawaii to go along with the mansion she has in Idaho, lakefront on lake pendoreille and 15 to 20 rental properties. I lived for years in an unfinished garage I was able to find and rent for $150 per month. It was hideous. Finally I was forced to move back in with my parents. There’s a ton more that all went her way. I got nothing from my divorce except severe heartache and emotional bankruptcy. I served my country proudly with 6 years in the US Air Force, separated honorably. Judge didn’t seem to care tho cause he yelled at me to ” Shut Up!” When I mentioned it in court. I didn’t know he hated veterans. That’s a rough idea of about half the trouble and trauma I’ve been attempting to live with somehow.one last sidenote. My ex got remarried couple years after our divorce. It was to the prosecutor of the county. That’s no lie. None of it is. I’ve tried calling attny after attny but none of them are willing to listen to hear what I’m up against. I’ve considered suicide, but the good Lord has kept me from it so far. I’d always hoped to have my relationship with my kids stay tight, but now after all these years of just visitation whenever I got the chance, they’ve disowned me because they don’t believe I’ve never been able crawl back out of the hole the courts and my ex dug for me to the center of the earth and filled back in with concrete and reinforced rear. I really have little keeping me alive any more. I wish I knew an attny that would help me get my share of her lucrative, 7 figure pension plan that we discussed. Her lies and deceit surrounding the entire deal are encompassing. She lied and cheated me out of everything after i was the main breadwinner for the first 8 years and she had every penny I made spent before I got it. Kept the financial pressure on me at ALL times. While the courts simply believed her lies and wouldn’t let me say one darn thing in my own behalf on decisions that would make it impossible to earn any money for the rest of my employable life. I’ve had severe depression and PTSD for 28 plus years. As a veteran, I attended my local VA mental health facility for years, but I was never able to recover or get over it. I need HELP! Please let there be a family law attny, and or a personal injury attny that can help this senior citizen, veteran of the armed forces that served his country only to be trampled by it. Please, please, someone have a soul, have a conscious. Help a down trodden, abused, oppressed veteran get some justice and try to at least climb back up on the surface of planet earth and attempt to repair my relationship with my children.

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