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Ask a Divorce Lawyer: What Is Alimony?

Jul 3, 2021 | Child and Spousal Support, Premarital and Postmarital Agreements

“Alimony” written in block letters with judge gavel and stack of money. A Houston alimony attorney can help you reach a fair alimony agreement.

The divorce process is an intensely emotional time, but also one where finances take a front seat in the conversation. A skilled divorce lawyer can make sure you are fairly treated when it comes to the division of assets and can determine if you are eligible for (or must pay) either alimony or spousal maintenance after the divorce. If you live in or near Fort Bend County, our firm offers the services and expert advice you need to help you through this difficult time.

The Question of Alimony

Alimony, or payments that a divorced spouse may receive for an indefinite number of months or years, is often an integral part of the divorce discussion. When there are two spouses earning more or less equal incomes, the conversation becomes somewhat more straightforward. Alimony would not typically be requested in this situation.

However, it is often the case that one spouse earns considerably more, and this is when the question of alimony comes into play. A skilled divorce lawyer will help you establish if you are eligible for financial support following the divorce and determine how much your payments should be. If you are the one who is being asked for support, we can make sure you aren’t being taken advantage of.

Are Spousal Maintenance and Spousal Support the Same as Alimony?

Not exactly. They all involve payments to the lesser-earning spouse, but the terms and duration may be different. Spousal support is a temporary series of payments ordered by the judge while the divorce is pending. This helps to provide some financial stability for one spouse until a permanent post-divorce alimony payment plan is in place.

In Texas, where alimony is not typically ordered by the courts (more on this below), the conversation becomes about “spousal maintenance.” Unlike alimony, which is often long-term and designed to keep one spouse in a similar standard of living to the one they had while married, spousal maintenance has a set end-date based primarily on years of marriage.

How Do Courts Decide How Much Financial Support Is Needed?

Whether we are talking about alimony or spousal maintenance, there are some standard factors that a judge will review to determine how much the monthly payments will be, and how long these payments will continue for.

First and foremost, the court will examine each spouse’s income and determine what reasonable expenses each person has. If one spouse did not work but contributed to the other spouse’s education, or perhaps supported the spouse in ways that allowed them to build a business, these are factors that will be considered. Age, earning ability, health status, and how much property each spouse initially brought to the marriage can also become determining factors.

When One Spouse Is “Underemployed”

The amount of financial support ordered by a judge is not always based on what a spouse actually earns – it can reflect what each spouse may “reasonably earn.” This means that if a spouse is deliberately earning less than they are able to based on employment history and education, a judge may set the alimony or spousal maintenance amount based on a higher figure.

So, if a spouse decides to take a “less stressful” job in the hope that this will reduce his or her payments, this is a strategy that could backfire. It is possible to prove that a job change was necessary, for medical or other reasons, but the spouse in question must be ready to provide corroborating evidence. A doctor, for example, might be called in as a witness.

Getting a Divorce in Fort Bend County, TX

Establishing a need for alimony is more difficult in Texas than in some other states. Texas law does not typically allow for long-term alimony but does outline rules for fixed-term spousal maintenance. There is a subtle distinction between the two forms of financial support, but in a Texas divorce court the conversation will almost always be about spousal maintenance, not alimony.

Alimony vs Spousal Maintenance

According to Texas Family Code 8.001, “spousal maintenance” is a periodic payment only, made from the future income of one spouse to help the other spouse. In other words, it is intended as a temporary payment plan to get the other spouse on their feet financially.

Alimony, on the other hand, can extend indefinitely. Generally, Texas courts will not require a spouse to support an ex-spouse forever, arguing that divorce is a formal end to that person’s financial duty towards the other party. Texas law will, however, allow for the setting of maintenance payments that will come to an end according to a pre-established timeline that corresponds to years of marriage.

Private Agreements Produced by Your Divorce Lawyer

While alimony may not officially be recognized in Texas, there is nothing stopping a couple from establishing a contract that sets out provisions for a long-term post-divorce payment plan. Typically, this would have already been included as part of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement, as it would be difficult to get a spouse to agree to this when the marriage is already over.

While this type of contractual alimony is perfectly valid, it could potentially be difficult to enforce. The spouse making payments may have a contractual duty to do so, but due to Texas public policy on alimony, it is not enforceable as a court order. One would have to hope that the former spouse will respect the contract and continue to make these payments in good faith. Otherwise, you might be in for a long but most likely unproductive court battle.

How Long Can Spousal Maintenance Last in Texas?

Unlike alimony, which does not necessarily have a set duration, spousal maintenance is intended to be finite. Even if the supported spouse is not able to improve their circumstances after a certain number of years, there comes a point where their former spouse is no longer financially responsible for them.
While other factors might come under consideration, as a general rule, the length of payments corresponds to years of marriage.

When a Maintenance Order Might End Early

​In the event that one party dies, or the supported spouse remarries, there is no longer a legal obligation to provide these payments. The maintenance order may also end if the supported spouse has a “live-in” relationship with a new romantic partner. In some cases, the supported spouse might have a change in fortune (perhaps they won the lottery, or found a great job) — if this happens, the maintenance order can be contested.

If you are facing a divorce and aren’t sure what your rights are, our team of expert divorce and family law attorneys is here to help. Call us today at the Skillern Firm in Fort Bend County so that we can make sure you are treated fairly. We will support you every step of the way throughout this difficult and stressful process.