Q & A: Spousal Maintenance (“alimony”)

Q:  Will I be awarded spousal maintenance (“alimony”) in my divorce?

A:  This is one of the hardest questions to answer. The possibilities are vast. Spousal maintenance can be temporary (“rehabilitative”) or permanent. If it’s temporary, it can be for a year or for several years or for many years. It can be tied to efforts to become more employable and find employment, or not. It can be in a small or large amount per month and the amount can change over time.

There are no mathematical guidelines for spousal maintenance in Minnesota law, as there are for child support. Judges have broad discretion in deciding this issue, and it is notoriously hard to predict what your judge will do. And, as with other issues parties cannot agree on, it can cost a lot of money to take this issue to trial.

Trends have changed through the 30+ years I have been a lawyer. It used to be very hard to get “permanent” spousal maintenance even though there were a lot of traditional homemakers out there. Then the law changed to say that if there is some uncertainty about the need for a permanent award, the court should award permanent maintenance, leaving its order open for later modification if circumstances change (such as the paying spouse retiring at normal retirement age).

But it has probably always been true that temporary maintenance is much more common than permanent maintenance, and most divorcing spouses are expected to attempt to become self-supporting or at least contribute to their own support. I would say it is a strong trend right now that judges expect a previously traditional homemaker to try to become self-supporting.

At what age does that change? If you are 60, have worked little outside the home and have limited job skills, and your income from marital or other property is not enough for you to live on, you are probably a good candidate for permanent spousal maintenance. If you are 50, well, that seems younger and younger these days, and you will probably be expected to attempt to provide some self-support. Of course every set of circumstances is different, and the outcome of each case will vary accordingly.

The law lists many factors that go into a judge’s decision about spousal maintenance. The most important ones are the recipient’s inability to meet needs independently, and the payor’s ability to meet his or her own needs while paying maintenance. Monthly needs (budgets) will be scrutinized to see if they are reasonable and realistic. The factors also include:

  • The length of the marriage
  • The standard of living established during the marriage
  • The age and physical and emotional condition of the spouse seeking maintenance
  • The length of absence from employment
  • The likelihood the receiving spouse can acquire additional education or training to become self-supporting

Since this issue is so complex and the judge’s decision is so unpredictable, it is always a good idea for both parties to be reasonable, compromise, and settle the issue between them if they can. Otherwise both parties may pay their attorneys many thousands of dollars and end up unhappy with the result.

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