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Spousal Support: What It Is, Why It's Needed

I recently worked on a divorce case involving a long marriage, close to 30 years, in which our client was a stay-at-home mom.  Her husband economically supported the family, working outside the home. When it came to the issue of spousal support, the husband balked at the idea of paying it, thinking that his wife was capable of getting a job and supporting herself.

But the job market of 30 years ago is very different than the job market of today. If a family has chosen that one spouse will maintain a household and raise children, they do so under the assumption that the parties will stay married.  Once the marriage is over, the "stay at home" partner can certainly prepare for the job market. But to think that someone out of the work force for so long can instantly land a good-paying job is just ridiculous.  It does everyone in a divorce a disservice when an attorney tries to push that fiction as reality.

In the Texas Family Code, there's a graduated provision for spousal support. The court considers how long a couple is married and whether one spouse is not able to support his or her "minimal reasonable needs" following the divorce. For marriages of at least 10 but no more than 20 years, the court has the right to order up to five years of spousal support; for marriages of at least 20 but no more than 30 years, it's up to seven years of spousal support; and for marriages of least 30 years, it's up to 10 years of spousal support.

There are also provisions for five years of spousal support for a marriage of less than 10 years, but that's granted only in cases of the obligee (the person entitled to payments in the court's ruling) being disabled and unable to work, or with the couple divorcing within two years of the obligor (the person required to pay in the court's ruling) being convicted on a domestic violence charge.

If someone receiving spousal support gets married, the rights to spousal support are terminated, and that's also the case if the same person moves in with a "significant other."

While the amount is determined by a whole host of factors, inc. the obligor's ability to pay, it can be up to 20 percent of the obligor's gross income or $5,000, whichever is less. The biggest debates in these cases concern the "minimal reasonable needs" clause--depending on the judge and how the case is argued, the outcome may vary from the amount the spouse "need" to be able to maintain a certain lifestyle to the amount a spouse needs to survive.

It's also possible for the agreement to be graduated and tapered off over time. Perhaps a stay-at-home parent needs three years to finish a community college program making him/her viable for a certain type of job. There would be an arrangement in which that spouse receives $4,000 in the first 18 months, $2,000 in months 19-30, and $1,500 in months 31-36.

The best way to craft an innovative spousal support plan that both parties think is fair and reasonable is probably through a collaborative law process. With litigation, both parties put the terms of their spousal support agreement in the hands of a judge who cannot ever know these parties' lives as well as do the litigations.

Of course, some people are left with no choice but to litigate--Texas prides itself on being a "no alimony" state, and people getting divorced often feel that they don't owe an ex-spouse anything after divorce. But it's unreasonable to do so in situations in which spousal support is warranted. The Texas Family Code and common sense say that an ex-spouse has earned a certain level of support.


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