Deciding to Divorce
The Divorce Laws in Washington State
Every state has its own divorce laws and the courts have different rules
in each of the counties within a state. This Washington divorce guide
can help you to better understand the laws that apply to your divorce
in Washington and some of your legal options.
Finding a Washington Divorce Lawyer
THIS GUIDE IS NOT INTENDED AS LEGAL ADVICE You should only accept legal advice from an attorney licensed in Washington
who is privy to the details of your specific divorce case. For the most
up-to-date information on divorce laws in Washington and how they apply
to your divorce case, you should consult a qualified Washington family
The Risks of Getting Divorced Without a Lawyer in Washington
A lot is at risk in your divorce proceeding, including your children, home,
other real estate, business interests and other remaining assets. Therefore,
proceeding without a Washington divorce attorney can pose a serious risk.
Once final court orders are entered in your divorce case, those orders
are often very difficult—if not impossible—to change.
You aren't required to hire an attorney to get divorced in Washington,
but it is almost always the wise thing to do. The outcome of a divorce
will mean some serious changes — to your home, your finances, and
your relationship with your children— that can affect the rest of
your life. Only a qualified and experienced Washington family law attorney
can inform you of your rights and the risks and opportunities associated
with getting divorced.
Why You Need Legal Advice and Representation
When getting divorced, you must consider:
rights that protect your relationship with your children and your access to money and assets.
Your obligations to the health, education, and well-being of your children, to the welfare
of your spouse, and to your creditors.
There are constantly evolving laws in Washington State that address these
rights and obligations. It is your lawyer's job to understand the
current law, explain their impact on your situation, and guide you in
making life-altering decisions regarding these issues.
Unless you have no assets, no debts, and no children, you should obtain
the advice of an experienced Washington divorce attorney to protect your
interests and rights.
How to Choose a Washington Divorce Attorney that is Right for Your Case
Choosing your divorce attorney is a critical decision; you should be deliberate
and thoughtful in selecting an attorney who will represent you. Review
each potential attorney's credentials and speak with the attorney
directly. Use the following criteria to evaluate attorneys and their qualifications:
- Check the attorney's license, disciplinary history, and standing with
the Washington State Bar (wsba.org).
- How long has the attorney practiced family law in the state of Washington?
- Does the divorce attorney have firsthand experience with Washington divorce
cases similar to yours?
- Did the attorney explain fees and the anticipated costs associated with
your divorce in a straightforward manner?
- Can the attorney articulate a strategy to resolve your family law case
and obtain successful results?
- Does the attorney explain the advantages and disadvantages of the various
options available to you?
- Can the attorney give you a timeline for the expected resolution of your divorce?
- What resources can the attorney access? Does the attorney's law office
in Washington include family law lawyers, paralegals, and support staff?
What are their technological capabilities? Can the attorney access experts
in fields such as mediation, taxes, financial planning, parenting investigation,
bankruptcy, and real estate in Washington?
- Is the attorney ready and able to go to court hearings or a trial on your
behalf when necessary? Does he or she have litigation, mediation, and
trial experience in Washington?
- Do you feel comfortable with the attorney? Do you feel confident in the
- Does the attorney have a clear and understandable communication style?
When explaining a law or legal issue to you, does the attorney make sure
you understand before moving on?
Does the family law attorney look, speak, and act in a professional, intelligent,
and courteous manner?
Finally, seek out a divorce attorney who is professional and who demonstrates
a sincere empathy for you, your family, and the difficulties that you
are going through.
Who May Get Divorced in Washington State?
You may file for divorce in Washington if any of the following apply:
- You currently reside in Washington
- You are a member of the armed forces and are stationed in Washington
- Your spouse lives in Washington
- Your spouse is a member of the armed forces, stationed in Washington, and
will continue to be stationed in Washington for at least 90 days following
the date you filed for divorce.
You should file for divorce in the county in Washington where you (or your
spouse) currently live. (You may also file in Lincoln County even if neither
of you lives there. To file for divorce in Lincoln County, you must have
Legal separation can be filed if you do not yet qualify for divorce in
Washington (or if your preference is to file for a legal separation versus
a divorce). When filing a legal separation, all community/separate assets/liabilities
will be divided but you continue to be legally married.
How Does a Washington Divorce Work?
A divorce in Washington begins when one spouse files the case as a sole
petitioner, or the two spouses file together as joint petitioners.
Filing as Sole Petitioner
A sole petitioner can file for divorce in Washington without the knowledge
or consent of his or her spouse. In this scenario, the sole petitioner
files a petition for dissolution and the spouse is served with a summons
and petition (often referred to as "divorce papers"). The spouse
(the respondent) must file a response within 20 days. The response indicates
whether the respondent contests (disputes) the relief requested in the petition.
A sole petitioner and respondent are typically each represented by their
own family law attorney.
Filing as Joint Petitioners, a.k.a. Uncontested Divorce
When spouses can agree to all matters that the divorce court would otherwise
decide, they are entitled to file as joint petitioners in Washington State.
If spouses file their petition jointly, there is no need for filing a
summons, for service of process, or for filing a response. This is often
referred to as an uncontested divorce.
In an uncontested divorce, the spouses sometimes file without an attorney.
Some couples choose to go to mediation to try to resolve their cases amicably.
While this is a good option for some, there are considerable risks involved
in filing for divorce without consulting a Washington divorce attorney.
How Long Does it Take to Get Divorced in Washington?
Washington State law requires a 90-day waiting period after you've
filed your petition before you may finalize your divorce. After that,
there is no defined timetable for how long a divorce will take. Generally,
your divorce will take from four to 18 months to be resolved.
Issues that affect the length of the divorce process include whether you
and your spouse are in agreement, if you have children, or if you have
complicated financial issues. Divorces involving a child custody dispute
often take longer.
Even the court's schedule (other cases that are in trial or judges
on vacation) could affect how long it takes to get a divorce. Your attorney
can give you an idea of how long your particular divorce case will take
What Constitutes Grounds for Divorce in Washington?
Washington is a "No Fault Divorce" State
No-fault divorce means that a spouse does not have to prove wrongdoing
(like abuse, dishonesty or infidelity) to get a divorce. The Washington
family law court's only requirement for granting you a divorce is
that you say your marriage is "irretrievably broken," even if
your spouse does not agree.
Spousal Misconduct May be Relevant in Specific Issues
While Washington family law court does not consider spousal misconduct
when dividing your assets and debts, it may be relevant in issues regarding children.
If you have minor children, the Washington courts may consider spousal
misconduct when deciding issues related to your parenting plan. Spousal
misconduct is only considered relevant if your children's health,
safety, or welfare is at risk. The types of misconduct that may be relevant
include current drug or alcohol abuse, domestic violence, mental illness,
or child neglect. If your marriage involves any of these issues, you should
discuss how this may affect your dissolution case.
It is also possible, although rare, for a Washington court to consider
financial misconduct (such as extreme overspending, indebtedness, or hiding
assets from your spouse) when awarding spousal maintenance or dividing property.
Having a Marriage Annulled
Called a "declaration of invalidity," an annulment is granted
rarely in Washington and only under few specific circumstances:
- If either you or your spouse were under the age of 17 at the time of marriage;
- If you failed to obtain the required parental or court approval if under age 18;
- If either you or your spouse lacked the capacity to understand the marriage
contract (usually because of mental illness or physical disability);
- If you or your spouse were already legally married to someone else at time
of your marriage;
- If you or your spouse consented to the marriage, but did so as a result
of force (because threatened) or fraud (because lied to); or
- You and your spouse are too closely related to each other by blood (first
cousins or nearer relations).
Even if you meet one of these requirements, in some circumstances Washington
courts may still find the marriage valid unless you can show that you
and your spouse have attempted to discontinue the marriage by living apart.
While a declaration of invalidity states that a marriage was invalid from
its beginning, Washington courts still may enter a parenting plan for
children, divide property, and make financial orders.
What Are the Stages of Divorce in Washington?
Litigation includes the discovery of facts and documents, presentation
of evidence and expert opinions, and written or oral legal argument to
the court. There are many rules that govern the litigation process in
Divorce litigation is focused on uncovering areas of disagreement that
may exist between you and your spouse and presenting your plan for resolving
these disagreements. The court is more likely to decide in favor of the
party with the best evidence and legal argument. Your attorney should
provide a strategy for this process. Litigation ends when the court enters
a judgment of divorce.
Washington State requires parties with minor children to use mediation
in custody and parenting plan issues. Parenting issues are only one of
many areas that mediation can be helpful.
Mediation is one form of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). It is used
to resolve disputes and hopefully reach an agreement. Mediation can be
especially useful in family law cases where information to be exchanged
is often personal and private, as it allows parties to keep that information
private. Parties often appreciate that mediation sessions are confidential.
It is also helpful to know that the sessions cannot be brought forth as
evidence in your case. Mediation can occur prior to trial and is almost
always a more cost effective way to resolve disputes. Judges are sometimes
present at mediation.
Mediators lead mediation sessions. The mediator is an impartial person
that assists and facilitates the negotiation process. They may provide
information regarding the potential outcomes should the mediation process
fail and the parties end up at trial. It is beneficial to choose a mediator
that has experience in family law. This may mean choosing a mediator who
previously worked as a family law attorney, or is a retired family law
judge. It is also best if the mediator has experience with and training
in mediator techniques. Sometimes there are free or low cost mediation
services available through the court system.
The mediation process in divorce cases is often entered by the parties
after discovery has taken place. This means that the parties have exchanged
necessary documents and obtained the opinions of experts, but no final
decisions have been made by a judge. Parties sometimes feel that divorce
judgments they have agreed to through the mediation process are fairer
than ones issued by a family law judge.
There are circumstances that make mediation more or less likely to be effective.
It is important that both parties want to participate in the mediation
process. It is imperative that the spouses and their attorneys are willing
to negotiate and genuinely want to resolve issues during mediation. Some
mediation sessions do not include attorneys. Generally, parties are more
successful at negotiating and reaching sound agreements when each party
is represented by their own family law attorney. If the mediation concludes
with an agreement, one (or both) of the attorneys involved will present
the court with the negotiated, written agreement. The court will review
the agreement, and if the agreement seems fair to the court, it will be
approved. If there are any remaining unresolved issues, the court will
make a decision on the issues remaining. However, some attorneys are unwilling
to settle a part of a case without settling the entire case.
In the event that mediation does not result in an agreement, the case will
proceed to trial.
Another form of ADR is arbitration. In arbitration, a neutral third party,
the arbitrator, is chosen to hear and make a decision about the issues
of the case. This process is very similar to a court hearing, with the
arbitrator acting as judge. Arbitration is governed by specific rules.
The rules are more flexible and less formal than those at trial. Parties
often feel less nervous in arbitration than they do in a courtroom. Part
of the reason for this is the more casual locations that arbitrations
may take place. Arbitrations may take place at your attorney's office
or the arbitrator's office.
There are many reasons to choose arbitration to resolve divorce issues.
Arbitration can often occur much sooner than trial. This is especially
true in instances where there is a long waiting period for court hearings,
because of court schedules or if adversarial litigation is causing delay.
Arbitration may be used to resolve specific, difficult issues in a case
where other issues have already been resolved. Attorneys often do not
want clients to settle a divorce case unless all issues have been resolved.
If parties get stuck on one issue, that issue may be resolved through
the arbitration process. After arbitration resolves the difficult issue,
further negotiations on other issues may continue.
Arbitration is typically binding upon the parties. The arbitrator's
decision (called the "award"), is final unless one party appeals.
However, in parenting plan cases, Washington courts retain the power to
modify the parenting plan even where an arbitrator has made a decision.
There is also a type of arbitration called "non-enforceable binding
arbitration." The process is similar to other arbitration, except
that the arbitrator's decision isn't enforceable by law or admissible
in court (as it is in binding arbitration). This type of arbitration is
mostly used as a method for negotiating a settlement.
Collaborative divorce is yet another type of ADR. In collaborative divorce
each spouse is represented by a divorce attorney who has been trained
in a practice known as "collaborative law." Lawyers also bring
in other team members (financial specialists, appraisers, child development
experts, etc.). These team members assist the process by providing expert
opinions and analysis for specific issues.
Spouses and their attorneys then work together to gather the necessary
facts, brainstorm potential solutions, review the available options, and
collaborate on a decision they feel will work best for both spouses and,
where applicable, their children. Parties often feel more respected in
collaborative divorces than they do in a traditional divorce.
Divorce is an emotional and sometimes frustrating process for most people.
Divorces that are especially emotional or contentious may not be right
for collaborative divorce. Collaborative divorce can be a good option,
however, for low-conflict Washington cases where the spouses wish to work
together, and discuss openly in a manner designed for win-win resolution.
Both parties must be willing to agree to voluntary full disclosure, as
there are no "sides" in a collaborative divorce. This collaborative
process is a serious commitment in itself: if one of the spouses decides
to withdraw from the process to seek protection of their rights in court,
both spouses have to start over. This means that both parties' lawyers
and all team members must withdraw completely from the case, and that
both parties need to hire new, different attorneys. Furthermore, any work
produced during the collaborative process is usually inadmissible in court.
When parties stick with the process, collaborative divorce continues until
the spouses reach a settlement. When deciding whether collaborative divorce
is right for you, you should fully research the benefits and disadvantages
of the process and select a family law attorney who has a history of success
in the collaborative process.
Cooperative Law and Cooperative Divorce
Though similar to the collaborative divorce process, cooperative divorce
is different because it does not require the parties to waive their right
to go to court. It also does not require parties to terminate their lawyers
if they return to court.
Cooperative law is an organized negotiation process with the objective
of settling disputes with little conflict and avoiding litigation. Like
collaborative divorce, the goal of cooperative divorce is to minimize
acrimony, hearings, and costly trials by focusing on the facts of the case.
Washington divorce cases are usually settled (often during mediation) without
needing to go to trial. Both parties and their attorneys negotiate an
agreement and present it to the court. If the court agrees that all issues
have been fairly addressed including the children's custody and residential
schedule, spousal maintenance, and division of property and liabilities,
the court will enter the divorce according to the terms of the settlement
If parties cannot agree regarding all issues in their divorce, then the
family law court will decide the unresolved issues at trial, after the
parties and their attorneys present their cases.
Trials can be costly and stressful. However, in some cases, trial is the
best way to protect your rights, children, or property. This is especially
true when dealing with an extremely contentious spouse or very divisive
issues. During trial, the attorneys present their case and a judge makes
decisions based on the evidence presented. The court's decision is
legally enforceable and there is no guarantee that the ruling will be
in your favor.
An experienced family law attorney will advise you about the likelihood
of a favorable outcome should you go to trial. This advice can help you
determine whether it is in your best interest to compromise on important
issues, and how many risks you are willing to take, prior to making the
decision to go to court.
When spouses divorce in this state, the court's judgment includes the
- A declaration that the marriage is dissolved (the legal term for divorce
in Washington is "dissolution of marriage");
- The date the divorce is final (the date the marriage will legally terminate);
- If there are minor children involved, the court's judgment will include
a parenting plan stating each parent's residential time with the children
and some specifics regarding that time and decision-making regarding the children;
If there are minor children or a qualifying adult child attending college
or other qualified institution), an order of child support detailing how
the financial support of the children and/or qualifying adult child should
be divided between the parties;
- A property division covering all the parties' assets. This may include
cash, the family home and other real property, investments, retirement,
business interests, vehicles and other assets;
- A debt division; and
- A list of any other obligations the parties will have to each other beyond
the divorce becoming final. This may include spousal maintenance or requirements
to maintain health or life insurance.
Does Washington Allow for Legal Separation Instead of Divorce?
Yes, Washington courts do permit parties to choose legal separation instead
of dissolving their marriage. The legal separation process in Washington
involves basically all of the same issues as dissolution of marriage—division
of assets and debts, providing a parenting plan for the children, spousal
maintenance, and the division of responsibility for supporting the children—but
there is a significant difference: after the legal separation is entered,
the parties are still married.
There are several reasons that people choose to legally separate instead
of divorce. Some individuals are not ready to dissolve their marriage,
but they still wish to live apart from their spouse. Legal separation
allows them time to live apart, while also defining the rights and responsibilities
for each spouse while living separately. In Washington, a separation agreement
can establish precedence for a subsequent divorce, and may be converted
into dissolution of marriage six months after the entry of the decree
of legal separation, if a spouse ultimately decides to legally end the marriage.
Other people choose legal separation instead of dissolution of marriage
for other reasons. These reasons include religious beliefs, not meeting
the Washington residency requirements for divorce, the ability to retain
medical or other benefits that a divorce would terminate, or to extend
the marriage past a certain number of years in order to qualify for certain
government benefits, such as social security or a military pension.
You have specific rights and obligations while separated that can have
a significant and long-lasting impacts on your life; you should consult
a qualified Washington divorce attorney who has experience handling legal
separations. This attorney will help you decide whether legal separation
is the best choice for you.
How Much Does a Washington Divorce Cost?
Why There Is No Such Thing as a Free Divorce
There are two types of legal expenses in a divorce case: attorney fees
and legal costs. Attorney fees are payments for your attorney's work.
Legal costs include (but are not limited to) court fees, fees to experts
(such as property appraisers and accountants), mediator/arbitrator fees,
computer research charges, copying and telephone charges, etc. If you
have minor children, there may be fees for a parenting evaluator, an independent
advocate for the child, and parenting classes.
Beyond the legal expenses, you will have other, personal costs during the
dissolution process. Some of these costs will need to be paid at the inception
of the process and some will be long-term. Parties should prepare and
plan for these costs because many of them cannot be avoided. There is
no way to get a free divorce.
If the spouses live in different residences during the divorce, there will
be the increased cost of maintaining two households. Living separately
may also increase childcare costs. There is also the cost of your time:
a divorce case can take up a great deal of your personal time and often
you need to take time off of work to attend court hearings, meet with
your attorney, complete paperwork, collect and submit documents, appear
at mediation, and research and compile information you will need to provide
your attorney. It may also be important for you to seek counseling to
assist you in dealing with the dissolution's emotional toll.
Then there are continuing costs that result from the financial effects
of ending your marriage: decreased (divided) assets, child support, spousal
maintenance, separate health insurance costs, etc. These costs may last
for years, depending on your divorce judgment.
Understandably, with all of these unavoidable costs, some people attempt
to save money on attorney fees by going through the dissolution process
without the assistance and advice of a family law attorney. Often, people
representing themselves spend significant amounts of time and money working
on their divorce, but end up retaining an attorney anyway, or they overlook
important issues, such as considerations for retirement assets or social
security benefits, and they end up paying for their oversight for the
rest of their lives.
Some of the same mistakes can occur if a party chooses to hire an attorney
who is too inexperienced or unprofessional, or who is not knowledgeable
enough about family law or divorce cases like yours. These people may
end up hiring a better attorney (who has to try and fix mistakes and oversights
of the previous attorney) or end up living with the lasting consequences
of the errors made in your case.
A lawyer's bill can seem large, but it is a smart investment in your
future. Ensuring you get the best possible legal advice and outcome in
your divorce case is the most effective way to protect your finances and
your family relationships.
How to Reduce Your Divorce Costs
The more contentious your case is, the more it will probably cost. Maintaining
civil and constructive communication with your spouse and his or her attorney
is the best to reduce the amount you will have to spend on legal fees.
But of course, this tactic only works when both parties approach the case
in a similarly cooperative fashion.
Negotiating legal issues prior to hiring a divorce attorney is not a good
idea. When people do choose to negotiate directly without their lawyer's
advice they often end up promising their spouse things that they later
learn are not in their (or their children's) best interest. Unfortunately,
this may create conflict and negative results that could be avoided by
speaking with an attorney prior to attempting to negotiate.
Litigation is expensive. As such, avoiding it is another money-saver. Spouses
should resist the impulse to fight over every issue. Instead, your attorney
can help you decide when to compromise in order to reduce unnecessary
conflict, and reduce the costs of your case. Your family law attorney
should be just as ready to negotiate as to litigate, and should discuss
these options with you when you prepare your case strategy. However, it
is important to be mindful that the decisions and agreements you reach
now will affect the rest of your life. Therefore, while it can save you
stress and money to negotiate the less-important issues of your case,
it is not in your best interest to give up rights and interests that are
most important to you and your family's future. When to negotiate
and when to litigate is a decision that requires an experienced family
law attorney's advice.
Attorney and Legal Fees: Who Pays for the Parties' Attorneys?
You should be prepared to pay your own legal and attorney fees in a divorce
case. In Washington, the most common result is that each party pays for
his or her own legal fees unless there is bad faith by one party or, in
some cases, if there is a considerable difference in the parties'
Attorney Fees: How Much Does an Attorney Cost?
Most attorneys charge a per-hour rate for services rendered. This generally
ranges from $200 to $500 per hour, and is usually billed in 5-to-10-minute
increments. When retaining an attorney, you almost always pay an advance
fee deposit (commonly known as a "retainer"), which is put into
a trust account. Then, attorney fees and other costs are drawn from the
advance fee deposit as your case continues and fees and costs are earned.
If the advance deposit runs out, you must generally make further advance
fee deposits to pay the attorney's hourly rate and other fees incurred.
If there is money leftover in the trust account, when your case is closed,
the remainder is returned to you.
Many attorneys also have paralegals and or associates that will assist
your attorney with your case. You will be billed for these professionals
work, but it will likely save you money because the paralegals and associates
work at a lower per-hour rate.
There are lawyers in Washington that charge a flat, overall fee, especially
for uncontested divorces. Attorneys are prohibited by Washington law from
charging a contingent (percentage) fee in your divorce case.
In Washington, court fees may include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Petition Filing Fee. This is the fee paid to file a divorce petition with
the court. As of June 7, 2012, the filing fee is $290 in King County.
- Service. Serving divorce papers on your spouse typically costs $50 to $75.
If your spouse proves hard to serve, this cost may be greater.
- Reporting Fee. If your case goes to trial or you have hearings, you will
also pay a reporting fee.
- Motion Filing/Respondent Fees. You may have to pay fees when a motion is
filed with the court or when you file a response to a motion, depending
on the nature of the motion.
The Washington court fees are similar in cases associated with annulment,
legal separation, and dissolution of a domestic partnership.
Ongoing Financial Implications of Divorce
After dissolving your marriage, your lifestyle and finances will be affected.
The effects can last for months, years, or even a lifetime. Understanding
the financial implications of divorce will help you manage your finances
and plan for your future. You may need to adjust to living on a reduced
income or taking on more responsibility for paying expenses. You may need
to find employment, or find a job that better suits your post-divorce
life. You may also have to adjust to making child support or spousal maintenance
payments. You may lose equity in your house if you have to sell it quickly.
Your taxes will also be affected by these changes. In addition, your children's
residential schedule and other child-related considerations may affect
your finances and your taxes.
It is important that you speak with a Washington divorce attorney about
specific financial implications that a divorce could have on your financial future.
Go to Part 2 - Prior To Divorce