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What is Spousal Support and How it Works

Posted by Bruce Galloway | Apr 11, 2023 | 0 Comments

Divorce is the end of a marriage, though not necessarily the end of your obligation to your former partner. In many cases, a spouse is eligible for spousal support. This is known in Missouri as spousal maintenance. Other states call it alimony. This is support that comes directly from their ex.

What is Spousal Support?

Spousal support is a monthly payment issued from one spouse to the other following the dissolution of a marriage. This is typically awarded by the court as a reflection of the contributions made to the marriage itself. The end goal is to provide the recipient with the money they need to achieve to “start over” and gain financial independence.

Partners can only collect maintenance if they were legally married. To qualify for maintenance, the spouse wanting to receive it must prove they lack income to meet their reasonable needs by either investment or earned income. The amount of maintenance is determined by the court, and based on a number of factors, including:

  • The value and kind of property and debts assigned to each spouse in the divorce.
  • The amount of time needed for vocational training or education.
  • The amount of money the other spouse earns.
  • The standard of living during the marriage.
  • How long the marriage lasted.
  • The earning capacity of each partner
  • The contributions made to the household or career.
  • The recipient's physical health.
  • The recipient's mental health.
  • Whether the person paying maintenance can afford to do it.

The court might set a deadline by which the recipient no longer qualifies, such as at the end of a 4-year degree, remarriage of a spouse or death of a spouse. It usually lasts indefinitely--until a court modifies or ends it.  This is called “modifiable maintenance and is the result preferred by Missouri statutes.  Settlement agreements may make them permanent and nonmodifiable or may fix the duration of the maintenance obligation to at term of years.

Spousal Support of Fixed Duration

Historically, spousal support protected women who stayed at home as the housewife, which was common.  Courts then liberally ordered payors (Husbands) to pay spousal support (then called alimony). With few opportunities in the work force available for women at the time, spousal support could last the lifetime of the recipient (wife). So, although fixed duration support is allowed, Missouri statutes prefer a duration of spousal support not fixed in duration.

Still, courts may order support until the recipient becomes self-sufficient. This can mean recipients getting their education or receiving the training they need to perform a job. It can also apply to a stay-at-home parent whose role was primarily tending to the kids. This person—and it really depends on the judge—might receive an award until their children graduate high school or college. Courts may “term” limit spousal support, but the statutes make it hard for anyone to make that case.

Lump-sum Maintenance

Missouri does not recognize lump sum spousal support. Creative lawyers may propose a court grant a worthy spouse income producing property in an attempt to overcome that restriction.

Permanent Support

Spousal support that is ongoing--barring the remarriage of the recipient or the death of either former spouse—is preferred by Missouri statutes. This kind of support is called modifiable maintenance. To end or reduce this kind of support, the person paying support must show a substantial change in circumstances. A basis for reducing or terminating support may occur when the recipient decides to cohabitate with a new partner. The court may decide that the new living situation caused the spouse to meet their reasonable needs. That may be difficult to prove.  A more common basis for modification of support is the retirement of the payer if the payor proves a substantial loss of income. On the other hand, the recipient may ask for the amount of spousal support to increase. The usual scenario occurs when the recipient becomes disabled and lost substantial income.

If a reduction or elimination of spousal support is petitioned by the payer, the reasoning must be in good faith. To put it plainly, you can't get out of spousal support by becoming poor on purpose. Changes of income for either former partner, retirement, major medical expenses, and other life-changing events might qualify for a review of the initial agreement.

Permanent, non-modifiable support is possible, but usually only by agreement of the parties. 

The Conduct of the Parties (Reimbursement)

You worked hard so your partner could get their education. You raised the children through high school. Your spouse suddenly found a young and fit alternative to you. And then you found yourself looking at divorce. Courts reviewing this circumstance tend to look favorably at spousal support. Spouses on the wrong side of that bargain will want to prove that they gave up employment or educational opportunities so the other spouse could be the breadwinner. Although the law does not require reimbursement from the spouse who gained the degree, at essence, courts are willing to view spousal support as a form of repayment. You just will not find that reason anywhere in the divorce judgment.

Temporary Maintenance

Temporary support can be decided by a couple who are separated but not yet divorced. Also, courts may order it after a hearing if a spouse proves they cannot make ends meet. That may happen because a spouse suddenly finds themselves in an apartment they could not afford because a sudden separation almost made them homeless.

Agreements for temporary support should be put in writing, along with an amount and the dates on which it will be paid. Judges seldom determine that the amount isn't sufficient if the spouses reached an agreement in writing and filed it with the court.

Final Thoughts

Missouri's statutes prefer spousal support to last a lifetime, subject to modification. Missouri judges increasingly find that result unappealing (pun intended). Statistics show that marriages are no longer permanent institutions. The economy has been rocky for decades. Most employers are no longer loyal to their employees. High earners may find themselves out of the high paying job without the benefit of even the mythical gold watch. Most importantly, women have a greater ability to find jobs and earn livable (though often comparatively underpaid) wages. The reasons supporting indefinite spousal support eroded with time.

That said, by statute, once spousal support is ordered, the judges are usually bound to enter indefinite support.  The judges may believe that the lifetime obligation creates an unfair hardship on the payer. The statutes' failure to keep up with well-known trends means the person needing spousal support may find a judge reluctant to order it.  That also means judges may find ways to find the lowest possible amount. 

So, the good news for the deserving recipient is that Missouri statutes push judges to grant spouse in need, spousal support over a lifetime. The bad news is that judges increasingly avoid doing that by not ordering it at all, or ordering as little as they can get away with. And of course, your perspective is vice versa if you are the potential payer. 

If you have questions about spousal support--whether you might need to pay it or be eligible to receive payments, contact the Bruce Galloway Law Offices.

About the Author

Bruce Galloway

Bruce Galloway is a trial and appellate attorney who practices family law and personal injury on behalf of victims of family violence, including domestic violence, sexual abuse, and child abuse and neglect. He works on other family law cases such as divorce and custody matters. His heroes are gr...


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