What is Spousal Maintenance?

28 Nov 2023 | Harriet McMorrin
spousal maintenance

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Spousal Maintenance

Spousal maintenance is a legal obligation to provide financial support to a former spouse after the marriage or civil partnership comes to an end. Maintenance is generally awarded to the lower earner in a relationship based on their reasonable needs.

What is spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance (sometimes referred to as alimony or spousal support) provides financial assistance to the less financially well-off party in a marriage or civil partnership when it comes to an end. Spousal maintenance may be appropriate where one spouse does not have sufficient income to meet their needs. The purpose of spousal maintenance is to help support the less well-off spouse until they can become financially independent.

It is calculated as part of a fair financial settlement based on the individual circumstances of your divorce.

Who is eligible for spousal maintenance?

In most cases, the individual with the lower income in the relationship is likely to receive some form of spousal maintenance, especially where there is a great disparity between the parties’ incomes. This is to ensure that one person does not experience a significant drop in their living standard due to the divorce or separation (see our blog post on Breadwinner vs Housewife Divorce Rights).

It is not an automatic benefit, however. If you cannot agree on the terms of spousal maintenance, the court will decide whether ongoing maintenance should be paid and how much should be paid to meet the lower earner’s regular financial needs.

How much is spousal maintenance?

The amount of spousal maintenance is not an exact number and there is no guarantee that the lower-earning spouse will get an equal split of the marital pot. Rather, the court will decide what is a ‘fair’ amount of maintenance based on various factors, including your respective incomes, outgoings, and reasonable needs.

To help you reach an agreement, our expert family lawyers will help you prepare a comprehensive budget, setting out the income and outgoings of both parties. These will form the foundation for collaborative discussions around spousal maintenance.

The goal is to agree a maintenance figure amicably between yourselves, so that the court does not have to intervene.

How long is spousal maintenance paid for?

While it is possible for spousal maintenance to go on for life, most awards are for a fixed term with a clear end date. For example, it is common for the maintenance payments to stop when the children leave school since the primary carer may then be able to work full time. Maintenance can also be paid for a short term, for example 1 year, to enable the spouse in receipt of payments time to become financially independent.

How is spousal maintenance decided?

Spousal maintenance can be negotiated directly between you and your ex-spouse’s solicitors, or it may be decided by the court. Limiting the amount of court involvement is a top priority. Your family lawyer will help you reach a fair agreement that meets both parties’ needs and provide guidance about what is realistic in terms of what you are asking for or offering.

Mediation can also be a useful tool in helping you reach an agreement. It is best to start with mediation and round-the-table negotiations if appropriate before court proceedings, as this will limit the time and costs associated with legal proceedings.

Do you have to wait until the divorce is finalised to get spousal maintenance?

No, it is possible to apply for interim maintenance during the divorce process. This is a court order instructing one party to pay the other a fixed amount each month until the divorce is finalised, and the final spousal maintenance award is in place.

The court will decide whether interim maintenance is necessary to meet the lower-earner’s basic living costs while the case is ongoing.

What happens if my ex-spouse fails to pay spousal maintenance?

If your former spouse stops paying spousal maintenance or does not pay the full amount, the first step is to understand why the payments have stopped. If there are genuine reasons behind the failure to pay, such as a change in employment circumstances, then it is beneficial to work together to reach a new agreement that more accurately reflects what your ex-spouse is now able to pay.

Where your ex-spouse is simply refusing to pay, then you can ask the court to enforce the spousal maintenance order. If granted, the court will order your ex to pay all missed payments.

Can spousal maintenance decisions be over turned?

Mills v Mills – the facts of the case

In August 2017, Mr Mills was granted permission to appeal the decision of the Court of Appeal to increase his ex-wife’s spousal maintenance payments fifteen years after they were divorced.

Following their divorce in 2002, the parties’ financial claims were settled by a consent order which, amongst other things, provided the wife with a capital sum and required the husband to pay spousal periodical payments for the wife of £1,100 pcm for joint lives.

In 2014, the husband applied to discharge the periodical payments order or, in the alternative, reduce the payments due thereunder. His case was that the circumstances pertaining to 2002 had changed in that the wife (i) had lost the capital she had been awarded in 2002 through gross financial mismanagement and (ii) was now in a position to work (or work more) in order to increase her earnings. The wife made a cross-application for an increase in her periodical payments because she could not meet her basic needs. The judge held that the order should continue at the current rate without any variation. The Court of Appeal allowed the wife’s appeal and increased the maintenance payable by £341 per calendar month (pcm) to £1,441pcm. Either of the parties can apply to capitalise on the maintenance payments. This is where a husband pays to the wife a lump sum to buy a clean break and end monthly payments effectively.

The decision

The Supreme Court reversed the decision made by the Court of Appeal and held that the original periodical payment of £1,100 pcm should stand.

Joanne Wescott, a partner in the family department at Osbornes who represented Ms Mills, comments:

“Today’s decision does not bring about the end of spousal maintenance for the wife, unattractively described as a “meal ticket for life,” far from it.  The original spousal maintenance provision of £1,100 per month from 2002 remains intact. The Supreme Court decided that the £341 increase provided for by the Court of Appeal was wrong because it took into account an element of Ms Mills rent”.

Joanne continues:

“The Court would need to give very good reasons for making that kind of order, i.e. that a spouse should fund the other spouse’s rental payment where that spouse had received a capital provision for re-housing. Ultimately the Court has very wide discretion, but in this case, the duplication for housing need was not a good reason”.

You can read the entire judgement here.

Contact our expert spousal maintenance lawyers

At Osbornes Law, our family lawyers are here to provide specialist legal advice and assistance for spousal maintenance cases. Whether you are the higher earner or the lower earner in the relationship, we can help you understand your rights and advise ways to negotiate a favourable agreement with your ex-spouse.

If negotiations fail, you can count on us to make sure your case is properly prepared for court proceedings. For more information about spousal maintenance, please contact one of our expert family lawyers today.

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