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What is spousal maintenance and when does it apply?

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Hannah Pike, trainee solicitor from Harrison Drury’s divorce and family law team, considers spousal maintenance on divorce.

What is spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance is a regular payment provided by one party to the other upon divorce. It can be ordered by the court or agreed between the parties and it is usually paid on a monthly basis to provide the recipient with a regular source of income.

The purpose of spousal maintenance is to enable the financially weaker party to work towards becoming financially independent. It is common in cases where one party has significantly reduced their working hours, or stopped working altogether, so that they could stay at home to look after the children whilst the other party worked full-time.

In most cases, during the period that they are receiving spousal maintenance, the court would expect the recipient to take steps towards financial independence, for example, by returning to work, increasing their hours or improving their employability by completing training courses or further education.

When does spousal maintenance apply?

To determine whether there should be an order for spousal maintenance, the court will consider whether the financially weaker party’s needs are met. A party’s needs will not be met if their income or assets are inadequate to meet their reasonable outgoings.

A common example of a case involving spousal maintenance is where one party has been a ‘homemaker’ whilst the other was the ‘breadwinner’ during the marriage. The court recognises both roles as having provided equal contribution to the family, but as a result the parties usually have very different levels of income and employment prospects.

In this type of scenario, the court would make an order for spousal maintenance to try to equalise the parties’ financial position until the financially weaker party is able to become self-sufficient (if that is possible).

It should be noted that there is no automatic right to spousal maintenance and the court would also consider whether the parties’ have sufficient capital available to achieve a fair outcome.

How long is spousal maintenance paid for?

Spousal maintenance is determined on a case-by-case basis. Payments are usually set for a fixed period to provide sufficient time for the party to focus on their return to work and it is quite common for payment to cease once the youngest child has left secondary school, although this does depend on the specific circumstances.

In some cases, there may be a vast disparity in income which would make it difficult to achieve financial autonomy, warranting a longer period of maintenance, possibly for the remainder of the parties’ lives.

Spousal maintenance automatically ceases if the receiving party remarries or on either parties’ death. It may also terminate on cohabitation of the recipient, but this is not automatic and it ultimately depends on the circumstances.

Either party may at any time make an application to vary spousal maintenance if there is a significant change to either parties’ financial position.  

How much maintenance will the court award?

The amount of maintenance (if any) varies as it depends on the circumstances.

To determine an appropriate amount, the parties need to take part in an exercise known as ‘financial disclosure’, which involves each party providing the other with evidence about their financial position, along with estimates of their future outgoings, to assess what each party needs in line with the available capital and income sources.

The court considers factors such as financial commitments, including those relating to children, as well as the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage in tandem with the disparity in income.

There is no set formula for calculating spousal maintenance and it is always advisable to seek specialist legal advice when considering a financial settlement.

For more information on spousal maintenance, financial settlement, or any other divorce and family law matter, please contact Harrison Drury’s divorce and family law team on 01772 258321.


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