Getting divorced is among the most stressful ordeals many people will experience. It upends nearly everything about your life. It can mean a significant change to a person’s lifestyle or standard of living. When one spouse in a marriage has fewer resources or less earning capacity than the other spouse, or when they are unable to support themselves right away, Minnesota family law allows a court to order the other spouse to make payments for their support. This is separate from child support. Some states call this “alimony,” but in Minnesota, we call it “spousal maintenance.”
The word “alimony” has negative connotations thanks to pop culture. State law makes it clear, however, that the purpose of a spousal maintenance award is to benefit the spouse receiving payments, not punish the spouse making the payments. When certain events occur, such as the recipient reaching a predetermined point where they can support themselves, the payments can end. It all depends, first, on whether the parties can agree to a payment schedule. If that fails, it depends on what the court orders.
The short answer to this question is that spousal maintenance differs from alimony in name only. The concepts, as practiced by courts in the U.S. in the 21st century, are essentially identical. Where they differ is in their historical baggage.
The word “alimony,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, originated in the early 1600’s from the Latin word alimonia, which means “nutriment.” It harkens back to a time when women had far fewer opportunities outside of the home and men’s role as “breadwinner” was an unquestioned assumption. The Minnesota Supreme Court put the matter in stark terms in a 1980 decision, Otis v. Otis. It quoted from an article published in the University of San Francisco Law Review in 1978 on the changing role of support payments between former spouses. The article noted that “society no longer perceives the married woman as an economically unproductive creature.” The allegory only grew less flattering from there.
We are far from the point where those attitudes are purely a thing of the past, but we have come a long way. Women have far greater opportunities, and are not destined to be dependent on their husbands. In 1982, the Minnesota Supreme Court observed in Erlandson v. Erlandson that “the marital relationship involves an economic partnership in which the spouses equally share the burdens and responsibilities of both marriage and dissolution.” The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges has ensured that there is no longer even a guarantee that a divorce will even have a husband and wife in it. “Spousal maintenance” is a more gender-neutral term for changing times.
Section 518.552 of the Minnesota Statutes governs spousal maintenance in this state. It identifies two scenarios in which a maintenance award is appropriate:
In either case, a court should consider the spouse’s ability to obtain employment, or improve their employment prospects through education or training. It should also consider whether one spouse supported the other while they pursued an education during the marriage. The Minnesota Supreme Court addressed this sort of situation in a 1981 decision, DeLa Rosa v. DeLa Rosa, noting that the spouse who continues to work makes a “sacrifice...with the expectation that the parties will enjoy a higher standard of living in the future.” At the same time, however, the court found that “working spouse is not entitled to maintenance...as there has been a demonstrated ability of self-support.”
These factors only address whether a court should award spousal maintenance or not. The statute goes on to address how much, and for how long.
Minnesota law does not provide a formula for calculating the amount that the court may order one spouse to pay to another after a divorce. The statute sets three general criteria: (1) that the amount be “just,” (2) that the court consider “all relevant factors,” and (3) that the court not consider “marital misconduct” as a factor. It identifies eight “relevant factors” the court should consider, although it is not an exclusive list:
A judge will look at a divorcing couple’s particular circumstances when deciding how much maintenance to award or order. As mentioned earlier, the court cannot consider fault as a factor. The purpose of a maintenance award is to provide support for one spouse once they no longer have the benefit of their spouse’s income. Using it as punishment can harm that purpose, especially if it creates financial hardships for the payor spouse.
A court can award three types of spousal maintenance in Minnesota:
The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled in Otis that state law should favor short-term spousal maintenance awards. Over the next several years after that decision, the Legislature amended § 518.552 to specify that an award could be temporary or permanent, and to state that as long as the factors mentioned earlier “justify a permanent award,” courts should not err on the side of short-term awards.
In 1996, the court found in Gales v. Gales that the Legislature intended “that doubts as to maintenance awards must be resolved in favor of permanency.” It also, however, set rather strict guidelines on permanent spousal maintenance. It held that a permanent maintenance order requires “an exceptional case such as the dissolution of a long-term traditional marriage in which there is an older, dependent spouse” who has been absent from the workforce for so long that they have “little likelihood of achieving self-sufficiency.”
State law also allows for modification of a spousal maintenance award based on changed circumstances. This can include both increases and decreases in the amount of maintenance. A law passed in 2016 allows courts to revisit spousal maintenance orders when the recipient spouse begins to cohabitate with another adult.
St. Cloud, Minnesota family law attorney Anthony Toepfer advocates advocates for people who are going through uniquely difficult experiences. He handles a wide range of family law matters, including divorces and custody disputes. As a client of Toepfer at Law, you will always have access to the latest information about your case. We are always available to discuss your case with you if you are unsure where things stand. Please contact us today through our website, or give us a call at (320) 497-4416 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you.
© 2020 Toepfer at Law