In family law, the issue of spousal maintenance (also known as alimony) is one in which judicial officers have significant discretion, and as a result, it is also one of the issues in family law in which parties face the most uncertainty. Clients who are commencing a dissolution proceeding often have many questions regarding spousal maintenance, and may wonder, “Can I expect to pay or receive spousal maintenance? How much will I pay or receive, and how long can I expect to pay or receive it?”
Spousal Maintenance: Why?
Courts can award spousal maintenance to a party in a dissolution action who is unable to support him or herself consistent with the standard of living enjoyed during the parties’ marriage. This could be due to a disability, a long absence from the work force, or a number of other factors. One common example of this is a marriage in which one party was the primary breadwinner and the other party was a stay-at-home parent or spouse for much of the parties’ marriage.
Once a Court has determined that a party is entitled to spousal maintenance, the Court must next decide how much spousal maintenance to award, and for how long. In determining how much spousal maintenance to award, the court conducts a budgetary analysis, considering both the requesting party’s need and the other party’s ability to pay. The Court will review the reasonable budget of the party requesting spousal maintenance and that party’s ability to meet his budget with his own income. If the party requesting spousal maintenance has a budget shortfall, the Court will next look to the other party’s reasonable budget, and her ability to meet her own budget while also contributing to the shortfall of the other party. In short, the Court considers the requesting party’s need and the payor party’s ability to pay. As an example, if the requesting party has a budget shortfall of $1,000 and the payor party has a budget surplus of $2,000, the payor party may be ordered to pay the requesting party $1,000 per month as spousal maintenance to enable the requesting party to meet his or her reasonable budget.
For How Long?
In addition to determining the amount of spousal maintenance, the Court must also determine the duration of the award. Spousal maintenance can be temporary or permanent, although “permanent” spousal maintenance is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, permanent maintenance is maintenance of an indefinite duration, and is most often awarded in long term (20+ year) marriages. Temporary maintenance is awarded for a set number of months of years.
The absence of clear guidelines allows for significant judicial discretion in making spousal maintenance awards, and a result, spousal maintenance awards can vary widely, making spousal maintenance more of an art form than a science. If you have questions about establishing or modifying spousal maintenance, contact the attorneys at Arnold, Rodman & Kretchmer today to schedule a consultation.
Written By: Kendal O’Keefe, Esq.