Spousal Maintenance 101 explained.

What is Spousal Maintenance?

Spousal maintenance is simply what used to be known as alimony. In Minnesota, there are two types of spousal maintenance:

  • Short-Term or Temporary Spousal Maintenance is paid to one spouse by another for a specified period of time after the divorce, or until a specific event occurs. It's designed to help one spouse stay afloat financially until he or she is able to become fully self-supporting. Temporary spousal maintenance is likely to be awarded in a shorter-term marriage, in which, for example, the wife dropped out of the work force for a few years to care for the kids and will need time and training to get back into the work force.
  • Permanent Spousal Maintenance, as the name suggests, isn't awarded for a specific length of time. Permanent doesn't mean forever, though; if either spouse dies or the spouse receiving maintenance remarries, maintenance payments end. Depending on circumstances, a judge can terminate spousal maintenance payments for other reasons. Permanent spousal maintenance is more likely in longer-term marriages, or when one spouse is unlikely to be able to become self-supporting: picture a couple divorcing after thirty years, when the wife has never worked outside the home and is approaching retirement age.

If a judge is awarding spousal maintenance, but it's uncertain whether a permanent award is necessary, Minnesota law directs the court to err on the side of permanent maintenance.

Who Decides How Much and How Long?

You and your spouse are free to discuss and negotiate the issue of spousal support, with or without your lawyers' help; this is often a good option. You know your abilities and needs, and you can customize spousal support to meet them. Reaching your own agreement is always more private and usually less expensive than going to court, and typically yields a more satisfactory result. But if you can't reach agreement, spousal maintenance is left up to the judge in your case.

How Does a Judge Decide on Spousal Maintenance?

First, the judge must conclude that there are grounds for spousal maintenance. Minnesota Statute 518.552 says that a judge has grounds to award spousal maintenance if either of the following is true:

  • the spouse asking for maintenance does not have sufficient property to provide for their reasonable needs considering the standard of living established during the marriage, or
  • the spouse asking for maintenance does not have sufficient earning capacity—again taking into account the standard of living established during the marriage—or is taking care of a child whose condition or circumstances make it such that it would not be appropriate for the parent to be required to work outside the home.

If the judge decides there are grounds to award spousal maintenance, the second step is to determine how much maintenance to award and for how long. There is no set formula, but the statute provides guidance--a list of factors for the judge to consider. These include:

  • The financial resources of the spouse seeking maintenance, including property awarded from the marriage and child support, to the extent that support also benefits the custodial parent.
  • The time needed for the spouse seeking maintenance to get adequate employment training or education to be self supporting. (A recent Court of Appeals case, Passolt v. Passolt, found that it is permissible to consider a maintenance recipient's ability to become fully or partially self-supporting in establishing spousal support amounts.).
  • Each spouse's contribution to the marriage, both financial and otherwise--such as the efforts of a spouse who was a stay-at-home parent and homemaker, or who provided unpaid services to a family business.
  • The standard of living the couple established during the marriage. Note that spousal maintenance isn't a guarantee that this standard will be maintained after divorce, only that the standard of living during the marriage is a one factor the judge takes into consideration when awarding maintenance.
  • The length of the marriage.
  • The age and physical and emotional condition of the spouse seeking maintenance.
  • The loss of earnings, seniority, retirement benefits, or employment opportunities forgone by the spouse seeking maintenance
  • The ability of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought to support him- or herself while paying maintenance.
  • Each spouse's contribution to acquiring marital property or causing it to increase in value (for example, a spouse who worked to refurbish a rental property so that it is worth more.

The law gives the judge discretion to consider "all relevant factors" in deciding on the amount and duration of spousal support. However, the law also makes it clear that marital misconduct is not a factor to be considered. Spousal maintenance is not intended as a punishment (regardless of how it may sometimes feel to the person writing that monthly check).

Can Spousal Support be Modified or Waived?

Life changes, often in ways we can't predict. With this in mind, Minnesota allows either party to ask for a modification of spousal maintenance for reasons such as an increase or decrease of either party's income or need, changes in the cost of living, or unforeseen medical expenses on behalf of a child. Per If you're paying spousal maintenance in Minnesota and can no longer afford payments, it's best to seek a modification quickly rather than to fall behind.

Spousal maintenance can be waived via a provision in the decree of dissolution called a "Karon waiver," after the name of a Minnesota case in which it was addressed. There is enough to say about Karon waivers that they deserve a blog post of their own. Suffice it to say in this space that you should never, ever waive spousal support without the advice of a knowledgeable family law attorney.

The Takeaway

There are many factors that can affect whether spousal support is awarded, how much is awarded, and for how long. So much is left to the judge's discretion that most people benefit a great deal from having an attorney who knows how to present their case. Feel free to contact us at Mundahl Law with any questions you have regarding spousal maintenance. We look forward to hearing from you.