Court Must Consider Both Income And Property For Maintenance

On behalf of The Marks Law Firm, L.L.C. posted in Divorce on Friday, April 19, 2013

A frequent question we receive from clients involves the standards for computing maintenance. We explain that Missouri law offers no guidelines for maintenance like it does for child support, but that it does set out specific factors the court must consider in determining whether maintenance would be appropriate and, if so, how much to award.

To determine whether maintenance is appropriate, a court must look to each party’s ability to support himself or herself, which means to meet his or her reasonable needs. The term “reasonable” has a fluid aspect to it, as a standard of living developed over time while married will be the benchmark moving forward. So, for example, a couple that starts with $5,000 in the bank and, fifteen years and two children later, has a six-figure income provider, a large house and multiple investments, and a stay-at-home mom, the stay-at-home mom can use her current standard of living as the definition of reasonable.

Two key components factor into the ability to support oneself – the duty to undertake reasonable efforts to become self-sufficient through employment, and the income one can derive from the marital property divided by the court. The latter criterion brings us to today’s court opinion, Valentine v. Valentine.

In this case, wife testified to earning $2,700 per month, and having reasonable expenses of $3,800 per month, leaving a shortfall of $1,100 per month, which the trial court decided to level by awarding maintenance of $1,100 per month. The Eastern District reversed the trial court, finding that it failed to consider the impact of the significant assets it awarded to wife in the distribution of property, namely, some $286,000 in pension, retirement and securities. Because the trial court failed to consider the impact of these assets, the Eastern District remanded for the trial court to so consider.

Does this mean that wife must liquidate part of a pension, intended for retirement, to take care of part of her present needs? That is a good question, left unanswered by the Valentine court. The best answer would be “maybe,” and it depends on how many more years wife would have to earn income, her own retirement contributions separate from those she received from husband, the tax consequences involved and the amount of need. If wife could reap a monthly dividend from investments with no effort, that would reduce her shortfall and also the amount of maintenance.

Missouri has a statutory preference for self-sufficiency and limits maintenance awards to serving that limited purpose, but whether that means a trial court can force a spouse to support herself by selling off part of a large marital asset is an open question – some courts in some cases say yes, others no. The reality is that such a question is very fact and context dependent, and only skilled lawyering in presenting all of the financial inputs, outputs and consequences can protect a individual’s interests.

If you have questions about maintenance, contact us – we can help.