Guide to spousal maintenance (alimony)

One aspect of reaching a financial settlement on divorce is whether one spouse should provide financial support from their income to the other spouse. This is called spousal maintenance or periodical payments or you may be more familiar with the term “alimony”.  Spousal maintenance is not an automatic entitlement and will be based on a person’s needs and is likely to be payable where there is a significant difference between the parties’ incomes or when one person has young children to care for or is unable to work.

An order for spousal maintenance can be made for a fixed term i.e. two years, five years. Such an order is likely to be made in circumstances where the children are dependant or to allow one spouse to find suitable employment or to retrain.

An order for spousal maintenance can also be made on what is termed a ‘joint lives’ basis which means that it will continue until either person’s death or when the person in receipt of maintenance re-marries. Cohabitation does not automatically bring maintenance to an end. Such orders are common in cases where the person in receipt of maintenance is caring for young children and is therefore unable to work. There are also various other ‘trigger dates’ which can be included at which time the spousal maintenance will come to an end e.g. if the person begins cohabiting with a new partner or when the youngest child of the family reaches the age of 18 or finishes full time education.

A ‘nominal’ order provides for a small sum of £1 per year to be paid, to enable the person in receipt of maintenance to make a claim in the future for a higher amount if their financial circumstances change. Such orders will in most cases be made where there are young children of the family.

In the recent case of SS v NS (2014), the Judge set out a number of principles to take into consideration when dealing with a claim for spousal maintenance. The starting consideration is whether there are ‘hard future needs’ to be met and if so, to then consider how much maintenance should be paid and for how long, with a developing trend for independence of both parties. When determining whether choices made during the marriage have generated ‘hard future needs’ the duration of the marriage and the presence of children are important considerations. It was emphasised that the Court must consider a termination of maintenance as soon as is reasonable and an order for a specific term should be considered unless the receiving spouse would be unable to adjust without undue hardship. Other principles set out in this judgment include that the standard of living enjoyed by the parties to a marriage is a relevant consideration however should not be decisive and if the paying person receives a bonus in addition to their salary, essential outgoings should be met from the salary and luxuries from the bonus.

Another recent decision in Wright v Wright (2015) demonstrates a change in the way Family Courts are now dealing with spousal maintenance. In this particular case, the wife was refused permission to appeal a downward variation of a maintenance order and was criticised for making no effort to find suitable employment. The Judge stated that when children reach the age of 7 years a mother should be in a position to commence part-time work and make some financial contribution to family life.

The recent case law demonstrates that in divorce proceedings a spouse can no longer expect to have their income needs met by the former spouse indefinitely many years after the divorce. It might be said that spousal maintenance is by no means a ‘meal ticket for life.’

Spousal maintenance is a complex area and you should seek professional legal advice. Please contact us for further information.