Recently, the Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 2, issued an opinion in a family law case discussing how courts divide a couple’s assets during a divorce. Ultimately, the appellate court determined that the trial court made a “significant mathematical error.” Thus, the court reversed the judgment and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The Facts of the Case
According to the court’s opinion, after approximately 30 years of marriage, the wife filed for divorce in June 2020. At the time, the couple’s children were all over 18, with the exception of their youngest. They also had an adult daughter who was disabled and required full-time care. The minor child lived with Husband, and the adult daughter lived with Wife, who provided care for her daughter. At the time of the divorce, the wife was 57 and hadn’t worked outside the home in more than three decades, and Husband was 62, suffered from a variety of health ailments, and earned approximately $86,500 per year.
In its final dissolution order, the court ordered the wife to pay Husband $399 per month in child support. The trial court awarded the wife the family home and Husband his 401K. The trial court also ordered the husband to pay the wife spousal maintenance of $1,700 per month for the rest of her life. In coming to this conclusion, the court cited the fact that Wife stayed home to raise the family and that wife’s monthly income was almost $1,500 less than Husband’s.
The husband sought reconsideration, noting that he was retiring due to health concerns in three to five years. The court denied his motion to reconsider, and Husband appealed.
The Appellate Decision
On appeal, the court first pointed out that the lower court made a mathematical error when calculating the wife’s monthly income. The court explained that Wife’s income consisted of $1,700 in spousal support as well as $1,600 per month for her caregiving responsibilities, which adds up to $3,300. However, the trial court had calculated Wife’s income to be just $2,300—an error that nobody caught.
Putting aside the error, the court then went on to reject Husband’s claim that the wife could go back to work. The court explained that Wife had been out of the workforce for over 20 years and, given her age of 57, there was little time to re-enter the workforce and build up her earning power before reaching the age of retirement.
The court also rejected Husband’s claim that the trial court’s decision was not supported by substantial evidence. Here, the appellate court explained that the trial court took all factors into consideration and came to a reasonable conclusion. The fact that Husband did not agree with the court’s conclusion was not a reason to revisit it.
However, the court agreed with Husband that the court committed an abuse of discretion in awarding the wife’s lifetime spousal support payments. The court explained that, due to the mathematical error in computing the wife’s income, the disparity between the couple’s monthly income was far smaller than the trial court believed. Thus, the court remanded the case with instructions to the trial court to use its discretion to distribute the couple’s property, including determinations on the amount and duration of spousal support, child support, and property distribution.
So, while Husband lost two of his three issues on appeal, the appellate court ended up reversing the trial court’s spousal support order as well as the property distribution order.
Are You Contemplating an Upcoming Divorce?
If you believe that a divorce may be in your future, the sooner you reach out to an attorney, the better. Divorces are not only emotionally difficult, they can also be complex—especially when there are many moving parts. At the Gearing Rackner & McGrath, LLP, our Oregon and Washington family law attorneys have decades of combined experience helping men and women through the divorce process, aggressively advocating for their best interests. At the same time, we understand that most of our clients prefer to avoid litigation, which is why we approach every problem as an opportunity to come up with a solution.