Understanding Spousal Support or Maintenance
Spousal support or maintenance (which can also be called alimony in some states) is money paid from one spouse to another after a divorce to help support the non-paying spouse. It can be awarded by the court in a divorce action or can be part of a divorce or separation agreement between the spouses. The purpose of these payments is specifically to provide an income for a non-wage-earning spouse or a lower-income spouse to balance economic inequities that may arise as a result of a divorce.
Maintenance or spousal support is separate from amount paid for child support and is calculated separately. The length and amount of maintenance or support payments the paying spouse is required to make is determined by state law. In general, the goal of spousal support or maintenance is for the receiving spouse to be able to support him or herself. The settlement agreement, decree, or order will dictate how much is to be paid per month, and for how long.
Factors in determining spousal support amounts
Child support amount is usually based upon state-mandated standards, but in most states, courts have more discretion when determining the amount to be awarded for spousal support. Each state has its own list of factors the court considers when making an award of spousal support, but they typically include:
- The age and health or physical condition of each spouse
- The financial condition of each spouse, including their assets, earning capacity, and financial obligations
- Whether the receiving spouse has any marketable skills and the length of time the receiving spouse would need for education, training, or re-training to be able to support him or herself, and the costs required
- The couple's standard of living during the marriage
- The length of the marriage
- The ability of the paying spouse to support the receiving spouse and still support him or herself
- Whether the receiving spouse contributed to the paying spouse’s success or was prevented from achieving his or her own success because time was devoted to the family or household (for example, where one spouse worked and/or supported the family while the other spouse obtained an advanced degree)
Many states use a formula to determine the amount of spousal support to be paid based on a percentage of each spouse’s income, which the court can then modify based on the circumstances.
In some states, wages can be garnished to pay spousal support, but in others, a spouse who is entitled to support payments and is not receiving them must return to court to force the paying spouse to comply.
Length of spousal support
The length of the support period may vary depending upon the circumstances and upon the length of the marriage. For example, in some states, the court must order the payment of spousal support to be given for half the length of the marriage, if the marriage lasted less than 10 years. Often, marriages that lasted more than 10 years will carry a longer spousal support or maintenance order.
The death of the paying spouse may not end the obligation to pay spousal support or maintenance. In some cases, support payments will be required to be continued, paid out of life insurance proceeds or out of other monies from the deceased’s estate.
If the receiving spouse marries, in many states, the obligation to pay spousal maintenance ends, even if the payments were scheduled to continue for a longer period. For example, if the court orders payment of spousal support for 7 years, but the receiving spouse remarries after 5 years, the paying spouse may stop paying immediately and the receiving spouse will not receive the last two years of payments. However, the spouses can agree to have support continue even if the receiving spouse remarries, so it is always prudent to review the specific decree, order, or agreement awarding the support.
In many states, maintenance or spousal support payments can also end if the paying spouse is able to prove that the non-paying spouse has “co-habited” with another person. Essentially, this means that the receiving spouse is living with another person but has not taken the step of getting married. This can be a tricky area, since each state has its own unique rules about cohabitation and how it is defined, and often the paying spouse must prove that the receiving spouse has a conjugal relationship with the person they are living with, or that they are living together as spouses.
If you are seeking a divorce or have questions about spousal support and maintenance, use our site to find the perfect divorce lawyer in your area.
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