Spousal maintenance: What you need to know

Divorce|September 22nd 2014

There are many misconceptions about spousal maintenance which I find often cause the most arguments between divorcing couples or couples who have divorced but where maintenance is ordered to be paid. People imagine angrily that it is a meal ticket for life, or even a way of getting something for nothing. The truth is that there are many complexities which need to be understood but above all, that the primary function of spousal maintenance is meeting financial needs.

It is no exaggeration to say that marriage can drastically alter the course of a person’s life. Some people even give up high flying, high earning careers in order to focus on raising a family and running the household. When the marriage ends they find their high earning spouse expects them to move on without compensation for everything they have given up to raise the family and their chances of high earning have gone for ever.

Some couples agree that in less esoteric circumstances one party simply shouldn’t work and can focus instead on child care they will manage on one income. What then is the position of the earning spouse and the non-working spouse? Should the non-working spouse go back to work, when and what kind of job should that person take? Full time or part time?

Spousal maintenance is designed to meet ongoing reasonable financial needs where a clean break is inappropriate, but people still get the wrong idea. Over the course of my career I have encountered many people going through a divorce who do not even realise they are entitled to it.

Understandably, some people begrudge spousal maintenance. This can be exacerbated when one partner remarries and still has to pay their previous spouse with a brand new family to support. The new wife begrudges payments to the first wife, especially if the first wife isn’t working but the second wife has to work in order to have at least a decent lifestyle. I have seen several cases of someone simply refusing to pay maintenance any further. As tempting as the prospect may sound, it is a potential minefield.

Someone who stops paying maintenance could be dragged back into court and have the payments enforced. However, that is not the worst possible outcome.

If a judge believes someone has the means to pay maintenance and simply isn’t, they can send that person to prison. Such drastic action is rare, but it does happen.

In some cases, it is possible to establish a clean break between the divorcing parties as that is ultimately the aim of the law. Instead of continuing maintenance, a single capital payment can be made if at all possible. This allows the couple to start the next chapter of their lives without the problems often associated with ongoing maintenance.

It may sound much simpler, but it is not always possible to get a clean break. They are usually established between couples who are wealthy enough to make that single payment.

A decision for a clean break lies with the court. The court decides an appropriate division of the assets, both capital and income. Each case is different and different factors will be taken into account, under Section 25 Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.

I say this a lot but it is well worth repeating: when it comes to issues of maintenance, it is a complicated area and it is in your best interest to seek professional legal advice.

If there is anything else you would like to know about spousal maintenance, do not hesitate to leave a comment and I shall do my best to answer it. There are also several other divorce advice videos to watch or you could pick up a copy of my book.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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  1. Belinda Coleman says:

    I have a Sears tooth agreement with my solicitor. My ex has left me on poverty, I have 4 children and soon to be homeless as he is evicting us.my step father had paid 6.5k in barristers fees but is owed 18k by my ex and refuses to help me further. My solicitor is asking for a further 18k from me or a suggestion as to how I pay this, but I am stone broke. My ex has had some 200k from selling properties from his company. I have received nothing and he has spent the money. What should my reply be? My solicitor has so far failed to secure a penny for me, a property or a car, spousal maintenance. I had to take my ex to the CSA. I am truly poor. My ex earns 200k pet annum.Please can you help. Thank-you.
    Kindest regards,
    Belinda Coleman.

  2. J Hare says:

    Can I go back and ask for an increase in spousal maintenance as I am about to face redundancy.

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