What is Spousal Maintenance?

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  • Written By: J.M. Densing
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 29 January 2020
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Spousal maintenance, commonly known as alimony or spousal support, is the practice of one divorced spouse making scheduled financial payments to the other. It is usually awarded when a divorce leaves one spouse with a significantly reduced standard of living. Depending upon the region and jurisdiction, varying factors are considered when determining if alimony will be awarded as well the amount and duration of payments. There are several types of spousal maintenance including temporary, reimbursement, rehabilitative, and permanent. As dual-income marriages have become more common, the practice of awarding alimony in case of divorce has become less widespread.

Divorce frequently has a significant impact on the finances of both parties, particularly if one spouse earns much more or less than the other. The spouse with less income can find that his or her standard of living is dramatically lower once incomes are no longer combined. Spousal maintenance is generally awarded in these cases so that the lower earning spouse is able to maintain a standard of living close to what was previously experienced.


Regional variations can influence decisions about spousal maintenance. Most often the relative difference between current and potential incomes of the spouses is the main factor that is considered; spousal maintenance is most likely to be ordered by the court when one person earns a lot more than the other and is likely to continue doing so. The ability of the spouse with more income to make payments and still be self-supporting is considered in many jurisdictions. Determinations of fault for the divorce are not considered as often in many areas as in the past; in many regions, the spouse who is at fault may still receive alimony or support payments.

There are multiple types of spousal maintenance which may be awarded. One kind is temporary alimony, which is ordered while the divorce proceedings are still ongoing to prevent financial hardship of the lower income spouse during the process. Another type is reimbursement often awarded when one spouse supports another for a length of time while that person is pursuing an education or training and the marriage ends soon after completion. An example of this is when one spouse supports the other while he or she attends medical or law school; this form of spousal support can be ordered even if payments are not financially needed as a way to compensate the spouse who paid for the education.

Rehabilitative alimony is usually short-term and represents payments to the lower earning spouse while pursuing measures to increase income so that support is no longer needed. Permanent spousal maintenance is usually ongoing and lasts until the death of either spouse or remarriage or long-term cohabitation of the recipient spouse. It can be reduced or renegotiated if one person's circumstances change such as loss of income or serious illness. It is most often ordered in cases where one spouse has a significantly smaller income and reduced earning potential, often due to spending many years as a homemaker or part-time worker while caring for the children. Spousal maintenance is no longer awarded as often as previously due to the increase in dual-income couples.


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