How Does the Court Determine Spousal Maintenance?

October 27, 2023  |  Jason C. Brown

Spousal maintenance, also known as alimony, is an emotionally charged issue some divorce litigants may face. The person being asked rarely wants to pay, while the person seeking spousal maintenance believes they need it. So, how does the court determine spousal maintenance? Keep reading to learn more.

No Real Blueprint

The tricky thing about spousal maintenance is that there is no specific formula set forth in the law. While the issue of child support is addressed by a very specific mathematical equation, alimony is not. However, the following framework may be helpful.

The starting point when considering an award of spousal maintenance involves an examination of the needs of the requesting party. That party must put together a summary of anticipated monthly expenses following divorce, and the budget must be reasonable. The reasonableness of a budget is measured against the standard of living the parties enjoyed during the marriage.

Next, the requesting party’s income, or potential income, is considered. The law provides that those seeking an award of spousal maintenance must be as meaningfully employed as possible. That usually means full-time employment in line with a litigant’s educational background and work experience. If the party seeking alimony is not so employed, the court may impute income equal to their potential earnings.

Determining Need

Once the actual, or potential, income of a litigant is measured against the litigant’s reasonable needs, the court can determine whether there truly is a need for spousal maintenance. If a party is capable of meeting their monthly expenses on their actual or imputed income, no need for maintenance exists. If there is a shortfall, however, the litigant has a defined need.

If a defined need for spousal maintenance is established, the court will next look at the party being asked to pay and compare their reasonable monthly expenses against their actual or potential income. If that party has excess cashflow, the court will find they have the ability to pay spousal maintenance.

Weighing Circumstances

From there, the court will examine a variety of factors, including:

  • The age of the parties
  • The health of the parties
  • The role the parties played in terms of serving as homemaker or raising children
  • Any career sacrifice one party made for the sake of the other during the marriage
  • The duration of the marriage
  • The length of time that may be necessary for a maintenance recipient to re-train or re-educate themselves

The ultimate maintenance award is subject to a variety of factors. The same facts may be offered to a number of different judges, and a number of different results are likely – all of which would be upheld on appeal in light of the discretion afforded to district court judges.

Typically, the maintenance issue is examined with a range of potential outcomes. In terms of duration, one-half the length of the marriage is often a starting point.

The parties have a large number of options at their disposal through settlement discussions, such as a cash buyout or agreement for an amount certain for a period certain, known as a Karon waiver. Judges don’t have that same level of flexibility. 

Contact Us with Questions

Now that you know how the court determines spousal maintenance, you may have additional questions. The divorce attorneys at Barna, Guzy & Steffen are here to provide answers. Contact us today to learn more.