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Family Law Blog

How Long Does Spousal Maintenance Last?

To some, the idea of spousal maintenance is that the wealthy former partner supports the other financially for the rest of their life – essentially a slightly odd type of pension plan.

However, that is not typically how it works.

Spousal maintenance generally has a limited lifespan and can come to an end in a number of different ways.

So if you are considering applying for a spousal maintenance order, let’s look at how long spousal maintenance can last.

A Lump Sum Order

In an agreement for spousal maintenance, or Court orders requiring it, there is a lot of flexibility about exactly how the maintenance sum should be paid.

And while orders will regularly be made for a certain sum to be paid in regular instalments over time, that is not necessarily the only way to do it.

One way to pay spousal maintenance is to simply pay a single lump sum to the other party.

This can be useful in a variety of circumstances.

First, of course, the party from whom payment is being sought needs to be able to afford the lump sum – if they cannot, the Court will not likely order it.

However, if they can, then a lump sum could help a recipient pay down, or pay off, some debt which frees up their cash flow to allow them to maintain their standard of living. It could also help with critical acquisitions such as a car or a house deposit, should those things be part of why the person required spousal maintenance in the first place.

Lump sum orders also have the benefit of less risk that the payer will default in their payments. An extended period of spousal maintenance has a higher chance of default, given the potential for changing circumstances of the payer.

A lump sum order, once paid has been fully discharged and the spousal maintenance will “come to an end” as it has been complied with.

A Set Date

The Court could also order that spousal maintenance payments be paid periodically for a fixed time, with a defined end date.

This can be useful if, say, a defined sum has been agreed or ordered, and the parties want to calculate the full payment timeframe so there is no confusion about the orders ceasing once all payments are made.

It can also help allow for expected events in somebody’s life (similar to the next category). If you know that at a certain time you will become eligible for a lump sum payment of some kind (say, from your superannuation fund)  or another significant event will remove the reasons that you need spousal maintenance, you can allow for that by setting a date for payments to end.

You would, however, need to be certain that the timing in question is fairly definite, otherwise the payments could end and you might be left in financial difficulty.

On the Happening of an Event

Spousal maintenance can also be ordered to end on the happening of a defined event.

Of course, you need to take care that there can be no confusion about whether or not the event has occurred, or else you could end up in a disagreement unnecessarily.

Things like “when X finishes their degree” would be a bit vague. Which degree? When have they “finished” – is it on graduation day, when they have completed the requirements, or something else again? If they do an honours year, does that count?

But despite some precision being needed, this can be a useful alternative to articulating an end date for a spousal maintenance order.

Let’s say you needed spousal maintenance because you put your studies to one side so that your ex could complete their studies. Now you have no tertiary education and might find it hard to get a job, so you intend to go back to study in your chosen field of law (great choice, by the way).

However, you can’t be 100% sure when you will be eligible for employment as a lawyer, nor how long your studies will take, so you cannot necessarily give a defined end date.

Instead, you might ask for spousal maintenance payments until you “are admitted to practice as a legal practitioner of the Supreme Court of Victoria” or something similar.

Now this comes with a caveat – you should expect, of course, that you would be required to agree to do all things necessary to achieve that goal. Otherwise, the system could be “gamed” so that the spousal maintenance payments never ended, and you would expect your ex to start agitating for cancellation or modification of the orders fairly soon.

If Circumstances Change

The first three examples we have given are all ones that would be factored into spousal maintenance orders from the outset. They deal with circumstances that we already know (or can predict) at the time we are seeking spousal maintenance in the first place.

Life is, however, not always predictable.

Sometimes there is a change in the things that were factored in when a spousal maintenance order was made.

Perhaps the payer loses their position and becomes financially destitute.

Perhaps the recipient secures a new job with a substantial income.

Perhaps the recipient gets re-married.

Whatever the case, if there is a significant change to the circumstances that warranted spousal maintenance in the first place, then one or both parties can seek to change the spousal maintenance orders accordingly.

It’s worth bearing in mind here that the Court won’t be interested in minor differences. To modify a Court order, there needs to be a tangible and material shift in circumstances, most likely one that would have resulted in a different outcome at the time the orders were made originally.

Bringing Spousal Maintenance to an End

While they could last forever in theory, most spousal maintenance orders end at a certain point.

If you are seeking spousal maintenance from your ex, it’s worthwhile discussing with your family lawyers the options for an end date and your intentions going forward. This can help them negotiate (or seek from the Court) appropriate timing for your spousal maintenance payments to finish.

If you need help seeking spousal maintenance or need to adjust some orders previously made, reach out and we’d be happy to help.

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