Washington Divorce law views spousal maintenance on the basis of what is called the “economic partnership model”. However, it usually focuses on the length of the marriage. If the marriage is less than five years you very rarely get maintenance.
The only time I see maintenance/alimony awarded in marriages less than five years is where one party is unemployed or would end up on the street if their partner just left them. Even in those cases, the awarded at temporary orders reads something like: “The [husband/wife] shall pay to the wife maintenance in an amount of $500 for six months or until the wife secures full-time employment. If full-time employment has not been found in 6 months the [husband/wife] may petition the court for an extension but only for good cause shown.” I have written orders like that many many times. At the temporary orders stage the judge or commissioner makes his or her ruling and says “Counsel, Write up the Orders”. Tradition has it that the primarily prevailing party draws them up; although sometimes a lawyer much older than you will assume that he or she will do the honors. We then often times have to go back in and argue over them. But that is usually if the attorneys either don’t know each other or one is inexperienced. As lawyers we also sit in the back of the courtroom and wait for our case to be called. During that time we talk with other attorneys about their cases or watch how the judges and commissioners decide other cases in Family Court.
On the other hand marriages longer than 20 years almost always do involve some form of maintenance, or “evening out” of the income and assets over time. The goal of the Court in such long-term marriages is mainly to maintain the partys financial standing at the same level for a considerable time after the marriage.
Spousal maintenance in Washington has traditionally been defined by an oft-quoted (and legally cited) bar journal article by Judge Windsor. It has been cited in many Washington divorce Supreme court cases.
Recently, there has been discussion regarding a new metaphor. A recent (2006) Washington State Bar Journal article discusses the subject. Maintenance can be highly discretionary and the cases I have dealt with on appeal have been difficult to overturn. That is basically the general consensus: the Judge or Commissioner must have really, really screwed up before they overturn it. Yes, you are thinking the right thing: it is very important to win at the lower levels. Don’t sit back and comfort yourself that “If they make the wrong decision I can just appeal.” This is not tax or corporate law. There are fewer analytical rules to follow. And this is alimony in the real world.