You may have previously heard of the term ‘spousal maintenance’ with regards to divorce and separation. In simple terms, spousal maintenance is financial maintenance paid by a husband or wife to their former spouse following a divorce.
Over the years, the way spousal maintenance has been viewed by the courts has shifted somewhat. During the 20th century, courts viewed spousal maintenance in relation to meeting an ex-spouses’ ‘reasonable’ needs, only for this to shift towards a ‘fair and equal’ division related to equity, joint income and investments.
In principle, the reasoning behind this is sound. The contribution that both partners make to a marriage is equal, with childcare and housework providing the same financial contribution as that of a ‘breadwinner’.
Any financial matter related to divorce and separation has the tendency to be incredibly complicated, with spousal maintenance being no different. The individual circumstances of a divorce will affect whether spousal maintenance is considered to be fair and, in turn, influences how much spousal maintenance is awarded. However, in many instances, this is a subjective decision rather than an objective one.
At Sharp Family Law, we understand how difficult it can often be to reach an agreement on spousal maintenance with your former spouse, especially as disputes and disagreements have the potential to disrupt important family relationships.
As such, our expert family and divorce lawyers always carefully assess each party’s needs in an objective manner and strive to reach an early agreement over how those needs can be met in a non-acrimonious manner. This means avoiding court proceedings wherever possible, which can often be stressful, time consuming and costly.
Here, we go into further detail about spousal maintenance and answer some of the most commonly asked questions we tend to hear from our clients.
Who is entitled to spousal maintenance?
There is no automatic entitlement to spousal maintenance upon divorce or separation. But, if a couple cannot come to a voluntary agreement about who should receive spousal maintenance, the court’s will consider whether the needs one party require maintenance to be paid to meet their ongoing financial needs.
In most circumstances, spousal maintenance in some form will be awarded to the lower earner in the relationship.
Our family lawyers appreciate this can cause concerns for both parties. The higher earner may be concerned about how much they will have to pay, for how long and how they might be able to protect their income.
In contrast, the lower earner, despite being awarded maintenance, may be worried about whether it will be enough for them to live, to account for their children’s need and whether they will need to make additional sacrifices for any children in the relationship.
How much is spousal maintenance?
The amount of spousal maintenance awarded will be dependent on a couple’s individual situation. As we touched on earlier, the final decision regarding the amount of maintenance will be considered ‘fair’ by a court, but what constitutes ‘fair’ will be a largely instinctive decision.
This means that there’s no guarantee an equal split of the martial pot will be awarded to the lower earner.
To help reach an agreement between both parties before court proceedings are necessary, our family lawyers will always look to complete comprehensive budget plans, which carefully map out what each party’s outgoings are and form the basis of collaborative discussions between both parties.
How long is spousal maintenance paid for?
Traditionally, spousal maintenance was paid for life. However, there has now been a move away from this permanent solution.
Instead, courts are moving towards fixed term spousal maintenance with a clear end date. This allows for the more financially dependent person to become independent and is much more likely to be welcome by the higher earner.
A common example of this in action is for spousal maintenance to run until children leave school and it is assumed that the main carer will then be able to resume full time work.
All of this means that spousal maintenance can last for any amount of time, depending on the context of the relationship.
How is spousal maintenance decided?
There are a number of different approaches to deciding spousal maintenance, all of which our family lawyers are highly experienced in. For the team at Sharp, limiting the damage of unnecessary court proceedings is a top priority.
Mediation involves both parties meeting with a neutral mediator together to identify what issues surrounding spousal maintenance need to be resolved, exploring potential options and using a variety of problem-solving techniques to come to an agreement that is in everybody’s best interests.
Constructive negotiation brings the couple and their respective solicitors together in round-the-table discussions which are similarly geared towards reaching an agreement that everybody is happy with.
Unfortunately, there may be some situations which simply cannot be resolved through negotiation, in which case court litigation may be the only option. Our team appreciate how stressful and daunting this can be, which is why we will stand by you every step of the way to ensure you are robustly represented.
Is spousal maintenance taxable?
You are not required to pay any income tax on spousal maintenance payments. This has been the case in the UK since 1989.
How does interim maintenance work?
Interim maintenance, or ‘maintenance pending suit’ can be applied for by either party. Is essence, it is a court order instructing one party to pay a fixed amount of money each month until the final spousal maintenance agreement has been made and the divorce is finalised. It will usually be made to cover mortgage payments, monthly bills and the general cost of living.
It is usually possible to quickly establish whether an interim maintenance agreement can be reached. A hearing can be obtained within 4-5 weeks of an application and can also be used as a contribution towards the legal costs of the divorce.
What happens if your ex-partner doesn’t pay spousal maintenance?
In situations where an ex-partner stops paying spousal maintenance, there are a number of potential options which can be explored.
It may be the case that your ex-partner’s financial circumstances have changed since the agreement was made, which means that it is no longer possible for them to continue paying the same level of spousal maintenance. In these situations, it is beneficial to work together to reach a new agreement which more accurately reflects this change.
Where your ex-partner is simply not willing to pay spousal maintenance, you may need to take action by making an application to court. If granted, the court will enforce the original order and payment of arrears.
Need help dealing with spousal maintenance for divorce?
At Sharp Family Law, we have a dedicated team of family law experts, who have a wide range of expertise with regards to spousal maintenance.
We are dedicated to helping you and your family find amicable agreements which reduce the need for harmful court proceedings and allow you to preserve important family relationships, especially where there are children involved.
For pragmatic, constructive and sensible advice on any aspect of divorce law or spousal maintenance, please contact your local team in Bath or Bristol.