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Spousal Maintenance - has anything changed?

5.05.2015

When couples get divorced there are a number of financial orders open to them.  Properties can be sold or transferred, pensions shared and lump sums awarded.  Child maintenance is always payable by the absent parent.  The other option is spousal maintenance, usually a monthly sum paid by the higher earning party (often the husband) to the spouse (usually the wife).

Spousal maintenance is frequently unpopular with the paying party, for obvious reasons, but in some cases, it is hard to avoid, for example where one party is a high earner, where there are young children or with an older couple, who are not yet at retirement age.  The overall intention of the courts is to achieve equality of both capital and income available.

Spousal maintenance awards can be made for a defined period, for example while the children are under 18 or for joint lives.  Joint lives maintenance has become more unusual and I would generally only expect to see it in cases involving older couples.

Recently there was a case that hit the headlines.  The ex-wife of a millionaire had originally been awarded spousal maintenance, but after a few years the burden of this was becoming harder for the husband to bear, particularly as he moved towards retirement.  He went back to the court to ask that the spousal maintenance be reduced.  The Judge’s position was very clear.  He concluded that the wife had an obligation to move towards supporting herself.  The element that hit the headlines was his suggestion that she “get a job” and also that once children are in Year 2 at school, or 7 years old, there needs to be very good reasons for maintenance to continue.

The ruling in this case could lead people to want to review their own circumstances.

If payment of spousal maintenance is to become more restricted, there needs to be ways to ensure financial equality upon divorce.  Couples will need to consider offsetting income claims against capital claims, with the higher earner foregoing some or all of their interest in the matrimonial home or giving away a larger chunk of their pension.  There may also be higher spousal maintenance awards, but for much shorter periods, with money available to assist the receiving party to build up some savings, or utilise that additional support to build a business or receive training to build up their own income potential.

This is a change which perhaps reflects the reality of life today, with more and more women working to support themselves and their families, why should others feel that they should depend on their former spouse for support, potentially for decades after they split?

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