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Spousal maintenance: What you need to know in a Texas divorce

Are you about to start a divorce but have no clue about spousal maintenance? Have you talked to family members who live in other states about divorce subjects like alimony? What these folks may have been trying to help you gain some degree of knowledge about your case is that the laws of other states have nothing to do with your situation. As a result, you spent a lot of time spinning your wheels and relatively little time learning anything helpful for you as it applies to your current circumstances.

Let's take a step back and look at this issue from the vantage point of a person living in Texas. I would like to impress upon you in a general sense that while you may have many people in your life who are well-meaning and even experienced in going through divorces, their advice may not be all that helpful in the long run. That is because family law is so fact-specific that unless that person knows your circumstances inside and out, it is unlikely that they will be able to provide you with that much in the way of guidance.

Fortunately for you, the licensed family law attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan can help you out with a free-of-charge consultation here in our office. We offer these consultations six days a week to answer questions and provide you with direct feedback about your life and its circumstances. If you have questions about the topic of spousal maintenance and alimony after reading this blog post, please pick up the phone and give us a call today.

Texas and spousal maintenance: not exactly a match made in heaven

While you may be under the impression that spousal maintenance/alimony/spousal support has been a longstanding tradition in Texas family law, the truth is that these concepts are relatively new developments in the State of Texas. The fact is that it has only been about twenty years now that post-divorce spousal support (known as alimony) has been a "thing" that could be awarded in a Texas divorce.

While we're at it, let's define the actual term in Texas that we will use for the remainder of this blog post. What you may have heard from relatives or on television as "alimony" is referred to as "spousal maintenance" in Texas. I offer this not as a correction necessarily, although it may end up being one, as a way to focus our attention on the essential information relevant to your case. Remember, you want to focus on the things that stand to help you in your case. Using incorrect terminology will not do this for you.

Are you eligible for spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance is not available to every person who files for divorce in Texas. There is a relatively high barrier to entry that I wanted to make you aware of at the outset of today's blog post.

For you to be eligible to receive spousal maintenance, you and your spouse must have been married for at least ten years. The main exceptions to this rule have to do with your spouse having been convicted of a crime relating to family violence. Other exceptions relate to your inability to support yourself due to a physical or mental disability that hinders or the failure to keep yourself due to your needing to care for a child with a physical or psychological disability of their own.

Will the court award you spousal maintenance?

If you can clear this initial hurdle which (thankfully) is relatively high to receive spousal maintenance, you would next need to concern yourself with whether or not you even have the facts present to justify an award of spousal maintenance.

Your divorce will offer you the opportunity to be awarded community property that you could theoretically sell or income you could utilize immediately to live off of to meet your minimum reasonable needs. You cannot earn an income sufficient to meet your minimum practical needs due to one of the above factors (disability of yourself, disability of a child, or the aforementioned ten-year requirement of marriage).

What are the most that you can be paid in spousal maintenance?

Now that we have established the qualifications for receiving spousal maintenance, it would make sense to discuss the limits to spousal maintenance awards. $5,000/month or 20% of the paying spouse's average gross monthly income, whichever is less, would be the maximum amount of spousal maintenance that could be paid to you. The cap, in other words, is at $5,000 per month.

When discussing income, we are talking about typical sources of income for a household- wages, tips, salary, bonuses, commissions, etc. It also includes retirement benefits, self-employment income, and dividends from stocks and mutual funds. If you believe that you are eligible to receive spousal maintenance, it will be crucial to your case that you be able to show a judge what your spouse earns in monthly income. If you cannot accurately prove what they make, you may be seriously undervaluing your claim for spousal maintenance.

What are the time limits that relate to awards of spousal maintenance?

All good things, it is said, must come to an end. If you are the recipient of a spousal maintenance award in a Texas divorce, you cannot expect this maintenance to be paid to you indefinitely. The State of Texas has set up a range for how long spousal maintenance can be paid, and from my experience, most people are surprised at how relatively short the award can be ordered to last.

After your divorce has concluded, you will see that there is a five-year maximum length of award for marriages that lasted at least ten years (but less than twenty) or if your spouse was convicted or received deferred adjudication for domestic violence. This would be the floor regarding how long spousal maintenance can be awarded in a Texas divorce trial.

If your marriage lasted at least twenty years (but less than thirty), you would be eligible to receive seven years of spousal maintenance. Finally, if your marriage lasted at least thirty years, you would be eligible for spousal maintenance awarding totaling ten years. Suppose you have a disability that causes you to be unable to work and support yourself or are caring for a child in that situation. In that case, you have a chance to be awarded an indefinite and ongoing award of spousal maintenance.

However, the judge will not be bending over backward to award you spousal maintenance for as long as possible. The judge will seek to limit the spousal maintenance award to the shortest period possible that allows you to start earning sufficient income to meet your minimum reasonable needs. Keep in mind that the exception to this rule persists if you cannot care for yourself due to severe disability or need to care for a child with a severe disability.

Who your judge is will determine how things go when it comes to spousal maintenance.

Family law cases are incredibly dependent on two factors that you cannot change by the time your case is filed: the facts of your case and the judge that your case is assigned to. Here is how these two factors relate. The Texas Family Code allows judges to utilize a great deal of personal judgment when assessing the evidence in your case. As such, whatever your subject looks like from an evidentiary perspective is what the judge will look to when determining whether or not to award you spousal maintenance.

Judges are human. A judge is more likely to award you spousal maintenance if you have a story that evokes feelings of pity from the judge. While you may not want to think of another person feeling sorry for you, you have a better chance of being awarded spousal maintenance if the judge feels bad for you. Another extremely relevant factor is whether or not your spouse is a high-income earner. If the judge sees that your spouse barely has any wiggle room in their budget, then your chances of being awarded spousal maintenance decrease even if your other circumstances justify this sort of award.

The judges will often time do not force a party into paying their ex-spouse maintenance after the divorce is to divide up the community estate so that you are awarded a disproportionate share of the property. In this way, you will have an opportunity to sell the property to create an income for yourself that will sustain you for some time after your divorce. This can happen, especially in situations where you can work and need time to find employment.

What else can a judge consider when deciding whether to award spousal maintenance?

If you are eligible to receive spousal maintenance, then the next question that needs to be asked by the judge is how long and how much maintenance will need to be paid. Factors like the length of your marriage and each spouse's income are ones that we have already discussed. Other issues like age, employment history, earning capacity, and physical health are also relevant considerations. Your contributions as a homemaker are impactful as well. If you stayed home for twenty years and allowed your spouse to go out and earn a medical degree and establish a profitable medical practice, then you would likely be entitled to a substantial amount of spousal maintenance.

You need to be able to work if you are physically able to do so

If you come into your divorce case with the position that you need spousal maintenance after your divorce, then you will find that the judge presumes that you can work to earn a sufficient income to meet your minimal basic needs.

How is it that you can overcome this presumption, and ultimately, we awarded spousal maintenance? First, you must show that you have put forth a reasonable faith effort to secure a job where you can earn sufficient income to provide for your basic needs. This does not mean that you can find a job that allows you to live the lifestyle you are used to. We are talking about the basics- a place to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, and transportation to and from work.

Here is an interesting factor to consider you must also show the judge that you have done your best to learn skills that would allow you to provide for your minimal needs during your divorce and in the period immediately following your divorce. This could mean having to go to school to further your education or complete a degree. It could also mean having an opportunity to go through the training program offered by a particular employer.

What can cause spousal maintenance to be terminated completely?

When you or your spouse die, the spousal maintenance award will also end. If you remarry, then the obligation to pay the spousal maintenance ends on the part of your ex-spouse. The trickiest factual circumstance regarding termination for the duty to pay spousal maintenance involves when you begin to cohabitate with another person with whom you are engaged in a romantic relationship. The cohabitation must be in a permanent place of residence and be continued. This can be sometimes difficult to prove, and you must be able to counter-evidence presented by your spouse if you attempt to argue that you are not in this type of situation.

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