The English of Alimony


Joanne Joyce from the Family Department of Lovedays Solicitors discusses the ins and outs of Spousal Maintenance

Joanne Joyce Family Matriomonial Divorce SolicitorAlimony, as the Americans call it, or spousal maintenance, as it is known over here, is a court order usually made within the finances on divorce, which requires one of the parties to the marriage to continue to pay monthly sums to their ex-spouse after the divorce. This is payment for the benefit of the ex-spouse and separate from payments to an ex-spouse for the children by way of child maintenance.

The mention of spousal maintenance can often cause a quite negative response, with angry cries that ex-spouses shouldn’t have a ‘meal ticket for life’. The recent case of Mills v Mills has been hailed in the media as stating that this is the current view in English law. In the case of Mills v Mills, an ex-wife had applied to increase the sums which she received from her ex-husband in maintenance. She did this quite a few years after the marriage had ended in respect of a final order on the financial issues which had been made in 2002. In this case the Supreme Court refused to make the increase she had applied for. However, rather than stating that she should not have a ‘meal ticket for life’ the court actually refused her request because she was asking the court to increase her maintenance to meet her monthly rent. The court decided that Mrs Mills had already received a lump sum to buy a house when the finances on divorce had been settled, but was now in need of rent money as she had ‘lost’ all her capital as a result of financial mismanagement. For this reason, the court took the view that she could not claim for rent when she had already been awarded money for housing.

However, this is not a judgement which spells out the end of spousal maintenance under English Law, and the Supreme Court was at pains to stress that this is not a commentary on the principles behind maintenance orders generally.

Under English Law there is a duty always to consider a ‘Clean Break’ on divorce. This means an end to all financial ties between the divorcing couple and no further claims at all in the future. However, there are cases where it is, for various reasons, not possible to achieve that clean break order, and a claim for spousal maintenance is legally acceptable.

We see such claims in circumstances such as:-

  1. In cases where one party is at home looking after very young children, where it may be necessary for the breadwinner to continue to pay after the divorce is affected. A family decision may have been made to designate one party the child care role.
  2. In cases where a child has a disability and one spouse has given up their career or cannot work as they are the carer of the disabled child.
  3. In cases where one party has not worked for years as they have been ‘homemaker’ and are perhaps, on separation, too old to gain momentum to pursue a decent career or earning stream.
  4. In cases where one of the parties has illness or a disability which prevents them from working and effectively achieving a reasonable income from earnings.
  5. In cases where when one party is a very high earner and is in a position to continue to pay maintenance to sustain a high standard of living which was enjoyed during the marriage.

In cases such as these, the court may consider it fair and just to order maintenance depending on the ability of the other spouse to pay. However, even if in the above circumstances, when the court awards spousal maintenance, it has to consider how long that maintenance should be paid, as well the amount of the payments. Plus, it should always be remembered that such payments will end finally when the ex-spouse receiving the payments remarries.

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