Why Spousal Maintenance?

A frequent issue that arises in the dissolution of a longterm marriage is that of spousal maintenance.   Practitioners of the law all too frequently present it to clients as an "it exists, live with it" proposition, and laymen understand it only as the nebulous concept of alimony.  Sadly, this conclusive and nonexplanatory concept is constantly reinforced in the opinions of both trial and appellate courts; further obfuscation comes from the earnest efforts of legal scholars in creating voluminous (and largely incomprehensible to anyone outside the legal community) articles on the topic.

Because of this, the general public has difficulty in understanding how maintenance awards are even justifiable in an age where there is a theoretical and rough parity in employment and economic potential among men and women - this leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding between lawyer and client.  To my way of thinking, it is important to distill the notion of why it exists down to an explanation that is simple, yet not a soundbite, if only to clarify available options.

My professional approach to spousal maintenance is consistent with Kentucky law and recognizes the fact that a longterm marriage is a single economic entity for most of its duration; like a business entity, some are managed well and some are managed horribly, and that will affect the economic value of the whole entity.  The participants in that marriage have certain specific expectations and roles in advancing the economic and social position of the marriage, each set of roles has some actual value which deserves recognition and recompense from the aggregate pool of marital assets.  Once the litigants have a clearer understanding of the reason for the existence of maintenance, the crafting of an equitable property division and determining whether longterm maintenance is necessary becomes a more rational process.

2 Comments

As someone who has been on the side of potentially having to pay spousal maintenance, I undoubtedly have a different perspective than someone who is in a position to receive it. When my first wife and I went through our divorce, I was intent upon coming to a mutually agreeable financial settlement. My state (Wisconsin) is a community property state, which meant that any settlement was going to entail a roughly even division. I was building a business while my ex-wife was being a stay-at-home mom, so it was a situation where spousal maintenance would have been a realistic alternative. Because we did not have a prenup, though, the community property law meant that she was entitled to half of the value of my share of the business. Valuation of a privately-owned, closely held business has plenty of room for subjectivity. We were able to negotiate an agreement whereby we both waived spousal maintenance, and I retained ownership of my shares of the business in exchange for a financial settlement to be paid out over time. I preferred this to paying maintenance because it precluded the possibility of her subsequently petitioning to increase maintenance. She received a reasonable financial settlement, and I could budget my personal finances knowing that I'd only be paying a fixed amount. It helped greatly that we were able to navigate the process relatively free of acrimony. The "calm, rational" approach is definitely the best for everyone involved!

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