Even in a best-case scenario – one in which you and your partner have decided to end the marriage on amicable terms – questions may arise about your legal rights and obligations. For example, you may both have questions and concerns about spousal maintenance. Specifically, you may be wondering if either of you is eligible and if so, how to apply, the deadlines for doing so, whether there are different types of spousal maintenance and so forth. Here are some of the things you need to know.
To begin with, spousal maintenance (known as alimony in America), is simply a legal term for the financial support one former spouse provides for the other following separation or divorce.
Ideally, you and your former spouse are still on good terms and you can agree on all of the issues related to spousal maintenance (such as the amount and a schedule for payment). When this is the case, you can simply put the terms into a legally binding Financial Agreement or Consent Orders that must be filed with and approved by the court.
If, on the other hand, you can’t agree on anything, much less the terms for spousal maintenance, you can apply for Spousal Maintenance through the Federal Circuit Court or Family Court.
Application is irrespective of whether you were in a traditional marriage or a de facto relationship (including a same-sex de facto relationship) but there are different standards of proof you must meet for eligibility.
To be eligible for spousal maintenance if you were in a de facto relationship, you must demonstrate that:
- you were in the relationship for at least two years, or
- you and your former de facto partner have a child together, or
- one of you made substantial monetary contributions to the other’s property, or
- one of you officially registered the relationship (at Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, or an interstate/overseas equivalent).
On the other hand, to qualify for spousal maintenance if you were in a traditional marriage, you must prove that:
- you cannot support yourself financially;
- your former spouse has adequate means to do so.
More often than not, the court will award spousal maintenance if you can show that your former spouse earns significantly more than you do and/or that you lack the potential to earn sufficient income based on factors including but not limited to your education and past work experience. For instance, the court may approve your application if you are a ‘stay at home’ parent and cannot secure outside employment. Your application for spousal maintenance may also be approved if you have had a prolonged absence from the workforce and now lack the skills or are too old to secure employment, or if an illness precludes you from working.
Be aware, however, that spousal maintenance is not automatic just because you don’t make any money of your own, or you don’t make very much. In other words, if you are capable of working and simply choose not to do so, the court is likely to deny your application.
You should also be aware that there are different deadlines for applying for spousal maintenance. With certain exceptions, if you were in a traditional marriage, you must apply for spousal maintenance within a year (12 months) after the divorce order is granted. Conversely, if you were in a de facto relationship, you must make this application within two years (24 months) after the relationship officially ends.
Another thing to keep in mind is, for the most part, spousal maintenance is not a long-term benefit. Usually, it is only in effect until you (the applicant) gain or regain your financial footing by getting a job or receiving training necessary to find work.
Furthermore, if you were in a conventional marriage, your right to receive spousal maintenance from your ex- husband or wife usually ends when you marry someone else. However, your right to financial support received after the break up of your de facto relationship won’t necessarily end when you start a new one. This is because the court will consider the financial dynamics between yourself and your new de facto partner when determining whether you can support yourself.
The way in which spousal maintenance payments are made will also depend on your unique circumstances. In some cases you may prefer one large (‘lump sum’) payment, and in others, you may prefer regular payments once a month, twice a month, weekly or even annually. If need be you can also apply for spousal maintenance on a limited basis. This may be your best option if you know you only need enough financial support to tide you over until your property settlement is finalised.
It should also be noted that spousal maintenance is not limited to monetary payments. Transferring ownership of a motor vehicle, investment property or other assets is also considered as legal payment of spousal maintenance.
Finally, we must also point out that, contrary to popular belief, child support and spousal maintenance are two separate benefits. While spousal maintenance provides financial support for you, child support payments should be used only to meet the children’s needs. This means courts can – and do – issue orders for the payment of both.
Divorce and separation are emotionally trying for anyone. Addressing complex legal matters on your own during times of stress can complicate things even more. For more information about the legal aspects of divorce, separation and related issues, including but not limited to spousal maintenance, contact the Family Law team at OMB Solicitors today.