The purpose of child support is clear. When two parents divorce, it is important that the children are financially secure. But maintenance? There is something about being tied to your ex by a series of monthly reviews that makes things even more complicated.
“Maintenance is such an emotional issue,” said Mandy Walker, divorce coach, mediator, and certified divorce financial analyst in Boulder, Colorado. “Especially if the recipient of the assistance is the same person who originally initiated the divorce.” And if your income is higher than that of your future ex-partner, you should think about what the divorce will cost you. Here are a few questions to consider so that you can plan accordingly.
How long have you been married?
“Unless there is a valid marriage contract that provides for a separate maintenance contract, any type of long-term maintenance commitment would be extremely unusual in a marriage of only a few years,” says family law expert Bari Weinberger, specialist lawyer for marriage law and founder of the Weinberger & Family Law Group in New Jersey. “In general, divorcing spouses can expect that the maintenance will be very limited in a marriage of only a few years or not granted at all in a short-term marriage of two earners with roughly the same income level.”
The longer the marriage, the greater the spousal support. Courts usually consider more seriously cases of couples who have been together for at least a decade. Although the exact formula varies from state to state (and from case to case), in many states, “the number of years of alimony may exceed the number of years the couple has been married for marriages under 20 Years not to exceed “. says Weinberger.
Do you have a variable income?
In some jobs, what you earn in a year goes up and down. For example, a contractor might build a number of houses one year but very few the next year. If your income changes from year to year, the courts will likely take a five-year average to figure out what you make and what you might owe, Walker says.
Does your spouse work?
If your spouse quits their job after they get married, some courts may require you to pay for professional retraining to facilitate re-entry into the job market. “This is called rehabilitative alimony,” says Weinberger. “Even in a short marriage, retraining may be needed if your wife has stepped down from a very competitive field to stay at home.”
Do you have young children?
In a short marriage, the “income” of a stay-at-home spouse can be calculated as if they worked 40 hours a week in a minimum wage job. In other words, this is the minimum she could be expected to have if she had to go out and get a job because of the divorce. “Conversely, if you have super-young children, the courts will consider this as the reason for the spouse’s inability to do a simple job and adjust the calculations accordingly,” says Walker. The reason: There is little reason for a spouse to go out and take a minimum wage job only to have to pay a caretaker to look after the children.
Did you lose your job?
Let’s just get that out of the way: you can’t quit your job, move back in with your mother, and get no income. Nor can you choose to retire at 40 and hope the courts will reconsider the monthly alimony payments. “However, if the paying spouse loses his job or sees a decline in his business, he can apply to the court for a change in his maintenance obligation due to changed financial circumstances,” says Weinberger.
Finally, it is possible to negotiate other forms of payment, although the most common constellation is one spouse giving the other money in the form of monthly checks. For example, you could offer to buy your ex out of her half of the house or consider redistributing material goods like family cars and perhaps private jets. “Sometimes these arrangements allow for a cleaner break, and that’s good for the whole family,” says Walker.
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