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Spousal Maintenance - a "meal ticket for life"?

View profile for Andrew Kingston
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Following a divorce, a spouse may be required to pay their former spouse maintenance, normally on a monthly basis, if they are unable to meet their day-to-day outgoings without it.

There is no set formula for the calculation of spousal maintenance. The court seeks to achieve a fair outcome and the amount paid will depend on the couple’s financial needs and how these can be met from their resources. The appropriate amount varies from case to case and specialist legal advice should be sought.  

The court has a duty to dismiss the financial obligations between the parties as soon as possible. So in some circumstances the court may order maintenance for a defined period (term of years) to enable someone to move towards financial independence, for example by re-entering the workplace after raising children. In circumstances where a person has been out of work for many years and would be unable to adjust without undue hardship a court may order maintenance on a lifelong basis. This is known as ‘joint lives’ maintenance and payments will end upon the death of either of the parties or on the remarriage of the recipient. At any time, either party can apply to the court for the order to be varied or dismissed following a change in either party’s circumstances.

The current discretionary system has come in for criticism as it can be very difficult to know in advance what a court might award, making it harder for the parties to reach agreement. There have also been calls for maintenance payments to be limited in amount and duration to encourage the financially weaker party to increase their income independently and become self-reliant.

A Private Members Bill put forward by Baroness Deech is currently before Parliament and seeks to restrict the court’s powers to award spousal maintenance by providing set criteria for when maintenance can be provided and imposing a five-year limit, save in exceptional circumstances, bringing an end to the so-called ‘meal ticket for life’ awards. However, critics of the Bill argue that a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not appropriate and that judges should retain their discretion as no two cases are alike and each case should be decided on its merits. Furthermore, a cap on maintenance could be unjust, for example, where there has been a very long marriage and the financially weaker party has supported the family, raised the children and enabled the financially stronger spouse to excel in their career.  Both parties have contributed equally to the welfare of the family and so both should benefit from the success of the financially stronger spouse. A five-year cap is unlikely to go far enough in compensating such a spouse for the sacrifices they have made or to support them financially in the long term.

It remains to be seen whether the Bill will be implemented as law, but either way the calls for reform are unlikely to go away.

If you require further information on this area, Wheelers offer an initial free half hour’s advice on all family matters at any of our three offices.

You can contact your family law team on 01252 316316

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