Spousal maintenance, alimony, adult financial support – what is it, and when can you get it?

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Spousal maintenance is a form of financial support for adults when a relationship ends

It is common in relationships for one partner to take on the role of providing financially for the family, and the other to be more focused on the home front. However, if the relationship ends, the non-earning partner can quickly find themselves in a difficult situation while they transition to becoming financially self-sustaining. Spousal maintenance (known as alimony in the US) is a form of financial support for adults, to ensure one partner doesn’t suffer undue hardship when the relationship ends. It is separate to child support payments because spousal maintenance is aimed at supporting the non-earning partner’s own needs rather than children in their care.

Who pays spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance focuses on need. The ‘career partner’ is required to make payments to the disadvantaged partner to subsidise their income for a reasonable time if that partner cannot meet or all part of their reasonable needs (as listed in the law).

How is spousal maintenance assessed?

A person seeking spousal maintenance must first satisfy one of the ‘qualifying circumstances’ listed in the law.

If a person qualifies, then the Court must consider several factors when setting how much maintenance should be paid by the liable party. The main one of these is the standard of living enjoyed during the relationship. One partner should not have to suffer a significant drop in living standards post-separation while they work on becoming financially self-sustaining.

The partner who applies for spousal maintenance will typically include a budget in their application. This would contain a breakdown of their income and expenses to reveal their financial shortfall and an appropriate sum of maintenance needed to meet their reasonable needs. Costs such as groceries, rent, power, petrol and personal care needs like haircuts will be all be considered.

What issues typically arise when applying for spousal maintenance?

Common arguments against paying spousal maintenance include the earning partner:

  • claiming they cannot afford to pay spousal maintenance and then inflating their expenses or not disclosing all of their financial resources
  • claiming maintenance isn’t needed as their ex-partner is being financially supported by friends and family
  • nitpicking their ex-partner’s budget
  • delaying proceedings in a strategic manner by, for example, seeking unnecessary adjournments or unnecessarily expanding the scope of proceedings, or
  • failing to actually pay the spousal maintenance that has been ordered by the Court.

There are some ways around these issues. For example, when a partner claims they cannot afford to pay spousal maintenance, the Court can require the person to sell property in order to pay be able to pay maintenance.

Additionally, it is not lost on the Court that it can come across somewhat ironic when one party claims they do not need to pay maintenance and point to their ex-partner being financially supported by friends and family.

That sounds hard, is it worth even applying?

Despite all the hurdles that can be encountered there can be definite benefits to applying.

Separations can become very acrimonious and expensive. Legal fees can potentially be claimable under spousal maintenance if you find yourself in a difficult and expensive property dispute.

It may feel as though the career partner has the upper hand in the separation as they wield financial control. However, a spousal maintenance claim can be a good counter against this.

There may be valid reasons for why a non-career partner is struggling to become financially self-sufficient which can be linked to the relationship. This can include the division of functions, the earning capacity of either partner, or the standard of living when the parties were living together. Spousal maintenance helps to even this playing field.

Other options

Often a spousal maintenance order can be avoided by couples following an alternative approach, such as:

  • Achieving a quick “clean break” financially so as to not be tied to each other for a prolonged period post-separation
  • Sharing finances for a certain period post-separation, avoiding the need for the Court’s costly intervention
  • Prioritising division of property post-separation to ensure the economically disadvantaged partner has access to capital.

How can we help?

If you are going through a separation, our experienced relationship property team can help to support you. We can advise on the best approach for your situation, including assisting with applications for spousal maintenance and negotiating with your ex-partner to achieve a workable settlement for you. Please give us a call and we will be happy to assist. You can view our relationship and family property lawyers here.

Our thanks to Yasmine Kidwell-Smith for writing this article.