How Do Judges Determine Spousal Support

Parties to divorce sometimes feel that determining whether and how much to award a spouse in maintenance seems completely discretionary, especially compared to the chart determination of child support. However, judges do have guidance provided by Missouri statute.

Under Missouri law, a court may grant maintenance only if it determines that a spouse lacks sufficient property, including property awarded during the dissolution, to provide for his or her reasonable needs; and is unable to support himself or herself through appropriate employment or is the custodian of a child that makes employment outside the home unreasonable. Thus, for a court to even consider awarding maintenance, it must first find a spouse really cannot meet his or her reasonable needs through his or her own efforts.

But what does “reasonable needs” really mean?

Our courts have interpreted reasonable needs to be more objective than subjective, meaning that the spouse must put forth a budget of monthly expenses a court can determine as reasonable and necessary to continue in roughly the same standard of living as the spouse enjoyed during the marriage. Not all courts will allow the standard of living adjustment – it depends on the duration of the marriage and the reasonableness of the budget.

Additionally, our courts impose upon a spouse a duty to pursue self-sufficiency. A spouse may not just assume he or she will receive a monthly check forever – that was alimony before Missouri enacted its current Uniform Marriage and Dissolution Act. Instead, a spouse must make efforts to be reasonably employed. What does that mean? It again is both objective and subjective. If a spouse has sufficient education and training in a career, the spouse is presumed capable of resuming that career. If a spouse needs additional education and training, that spouse should pursue that avenue to become as close to self-sufficient as possible. Only limitations related to age, ability and medical condition would constrict a court in imposing some level of full-time employment.

After the court finds the spouse needs some help in meeting monthly needs, the court has ten factors to consider in determining the amount: the financial resources of the party seeking maintenance; the time necessary to pursue additional education or training; the comparative earning capacity of each spouse; the standard of living established during the marriage; the obligations and assets apportioned to each spouse during the dissolution; the duration of the marriage; age, physical and emotional condition of each spouse; the ability of the spouse paying maintenance to meet his or her personal needs and also contribute to the needs of the spouse receiving maintenance; the conduct of the parties during the marriage; and any other relevant factors.

As you can see, the statute gives the court specific direction to arrive at a reasonable sum for maintenance. In general, the longer the marriage, the more likely the court will award some maintenance, particularly if the dependent spouse spent most of the marriage caring for the children. The court will look at the monthly budget of expenses of the receiving spouse, determine what is truly reasonable, and find the gap between expenses and reasonable income. The gap will be the sum for maintenance, subject to the ability of the other spouse to afford it.

Hence, while not as clearly defined as child support, maintenance is a guided process for the court, and parties seeking or opposing maintenance know what evidence they need to introduce or challenge to address an appropriate sum for maintenance.

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