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What is spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance is a regular payment made by a former spouse or civil partner to their ex-spouse or ex-partner. Spousal maintenance is also known as ‘spousal support’ or ’alimony’, and as ‘periodical allowances’ or ‘aliment’ in Scotland. 

It is only paid when one ex-spouse or partner cannot support themselves financially without it. It is designed to help the financially weaker party adjust to their financial position after divorce or dissolution.

Spousal maintenance is different to child maintenance in both England and Wales and in Scotland. Child maintenance is financial support used towards a child's everyday living costs when the child’s parent (or guardian) separates from their partner.

When should you consider spousal maintenance?

You can apply to the court for spousal maintenance when you are divorcing your spouse (or dissolving your civil partnership) and feel that you will not be able to manage financially. This can be either because your standard of living will change drastically or you will be put at a worrying financial disadvantage. This could be, for example, because of your decision to forego a career to support your family, meaning you now need time to develop your skills. It could be to help you continue the standard of living you had prior to divorce or dissolution.

In Scotland, ongoing periodical allowances are rarely paid when a couple divorces or dissolves a civil partnership, as the courts normally impose a clean break principle. However, on some occasions, periodical allowances may be awarded by the courts where there are insufficient assets to be divided between both parties or the assets are inadequate to meet your needs.

How is the amount of spousal maintenance determined?

There is no set formula for the calculation of spousal maintenance, as there is for child maintenance. The payment has to be affordable for the paying party and the needs of the payee (ie the person receiving the spousal maintenance) have to be genuine.

The amount you receive depends on many factors, including:

  • how much you need to live on

  • how much income you already have

  • how much you could potentially earn in the future

  • the assets that belong to the party making the payment as well as the way in which you lived during the marriage

  • how many children you have and their welfare needs

How long must spousal maintenance be paid for?

The duration of spousal maintenance payments is different in England and Wales and in Scotland.

England and Wales

If the marriage or civil partnership is short (typically less than 5 years), the courts will normally impose a shorter period for which spousal maintenance is paid. This is known as a ‘term order’. 

However, if the couple has been together for a long time or if the court feels that the payee is unlikely to become financially independent, a ‘joint lives order’ may be imposed. This requires payment to be made for the rest of either party’s life. In granting a joint lives order, the court will consider all of the relevant factors mentioned above to see if the person receiving the payment can move closer to becoming financially independent.

Scotland

The courts will normally make a periodical allowance for a specific time, usually with a maximum duration of 3 years. In exceptional circumstances, the courts may award a periodical allowance for an extended period. These circumstances include if the individual receiving the periodical allowance:

  • did not work throughout the course of the marriage and would thus struggle to find employment. The other individual must be in good employment for this to be awarded

  • suffers from an illness or disability that means they would experience severe financial hardship without the payments. In this case, payments may be awarded until they remarry, enter into a civil partnership, or die

When do spousal maintenance payments stop?

Spousal maintenance and periodical allowances usually stop when:

  • one of the ex-partners dies

  • the payment term ends

  • the person receiving spousal maintenance remarries or enters into another civil partnership

  • the court provides an order to stop the payments

Should spousal maintenance be paid as a lump sum or as continual maintenance payments?

Generally, spousal maintenance is made in continual maintenance payments. However, in some circumstances, a lump sum can be paid instead of a continual maintenance payment. By paying spousal maintenance as a lump sum, the party making the payment effectively ‘buys out’ the payee’s maintenance claim.

Making a lump sum payment helps to encourage a clean break, severing all financial ties between the parties. This may be preferable to the parties if the relevant funds are available.

Can the amount of spousal maintenance change?

The person making payments can apply to the court to have the amount adjusted, based on a change of circumstances, such as changes in the income or wealth of the party receiving the spousal maintenance. For instance, the person receiving maintenance payments could have secured a new job leading them to become more financially independent. The court may decide to reduce the payment in order to reflect the change. It may also be reduced when the paying party can no longer make the payments (eg because they lost their job).

The court also has the power to do the opposite, ie increase the value of payments.

Applying for spousal maintenance

You can apply directly to the court for spousal maintenance. If you feel you may be eligible for spousal maintenance, you can Ask a lawyer for more details about applying and the costs involved.


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