SPOUSAL MAINTENANCE

When Jill wants Jack to financially support her after the divorce...

It's a common tale. Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. After the tumble down the hillside, they moved to Texas, fell in love, and got married. Ten years and many more spills later, Jack and Jill decide to divorce. Jill wants spousal maintenance. Jack wants to understand what it is and why he should pay it. Both need education on the topic before they break their crowns in frustration.

In a Texas divorce suit, the Court may order spousal maintenance to financially provide for a spouse who can't sufficiently provide for herself. Under certain statutory provisions, either spouse can petition for spousal maintenance. Spousal maintenance is periodic payments from the future income of one spouse for the support of the other spouse (Texas Family Code § 8.001(1)). It is intended to provide limited support to spouses like Jill during the period of uncertainty and transition after the divorce. Although spousal maintenance was originally designed to protect long-term homemakers who had little or no income, it now also protects disabled spouses, spouses who care for disabled children, and spouses affected by family violence.

To be eligible to receive spousal maintenance, Jill must prove that she (1) is a spouse, (2) lacks sufficient property to provide for her minimum reasonable needs, and (3) has met one of the four statutory bases for spousal maintenance (i.e., ten-year marriage, family violence, disabled spouse, or disabled child) (Texas Family Code § 8.051).

In our tale, Jill easily meets two of these three elements: she is a spouse and was married to Jack for at least ten years. The final element is harder: Jill must prove that after the divorce she will lack sufficient property, including separate property, to provide for her minimum reasonable needs. The term "minimum reasonable needs" is not defined in the Texas Family Code, so the Court must use case-specific facts to determine those needs. The result varies couple to couple. Consequently, there is no correct way to present Jill's minimum reasonable needs. It's ultimately up to the Court's discretion.

Some factors that the Court may consider in determining "minimum reasonable needs" include Jill's list of monthly expenses, Jill's education level and employment history, Jill's employability and anticipated future income levels, Jill's efforts to secure employment, and Jill's need for medical or mental-health services and the associated costs.

Even if Jill gets a minimum-wage job or is well educated, she may still qualify for spousal maintenance. Also, the Court may consider the characteristics of Jill's awarded community property and separate property when determining spousal maintenance. For instance, Jill may still qualify for spousal maintenance if she is awarded property in the divorce that is not easily liquidated, like a home, or has heavy tax implications and penalties to liquidate, like a retirement account.

The Court may also consider many other factors in determining maintenance. For example, the Court may consider Jill's contribution as a homemaker. Additionally, marital misconduct is another possible factor. For instance, if Jack's fling with Little Miss Muffet was a contributing factor in the breakup of Jack and Jill's marriage, the Court may take that evidence into consideration too.

The duration of the spousal-maintenance payments typically is based on the number of years of the marriage. For couples who have been married for 10 to 19 years, like Jack & Jill, spousal maintenance is awarded for no more than five years. For couples who have been married for 20 to 29 years, spousal maintenance is awarded for no more than seven years. For couples who have been married for 30 years or longer, spousal maintenance is awarded for no more than ten years. There are exceptions to these time limits, including family violence issues and disability of either the spouse or a child of the marriage.

The amount of spousal maintenance ordered to be paid is statutorily capped. A Court may not order maintenance payments from Jack that equal more than 20% of his average monthly gross income. Monthly maintenance payments may not exceed $5,000.

Ultimately, Jill will have to prove to the Court why she needs spousal maintenance. In opposition, Jack will present arguments why Jill doesn't need financial support. It will probably be a contentious hearing, and Jack & Jill will likely lament the day that they met tumbling down that faithful hill a decade prior.

If you find yourself in a spousal-maintenance dispute, don't attempt this seemingly uphill battle alone. Have an experienced family-law advocate at your side who can help you present the best argument to Court that helps to protect your interests. Don't fall down. Don't break your crown. Be prepared.

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