What is Spousal Maintenance and Why is It Important?

Spousal maintenance is designed to help support people who may need help after a divorce, but what exactly does that mean for you?

What is spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance is a payment made from one former spouse to the other after a divorce. It’s made when one partner can’t support themselves financially without it.

Spousal maintenance is there to ensure that both parties can manage financially after divorce. When deciding how much spousal maintenance should be paid, the main aim of the court is for both parties to eventually be financially independent.

Spousal maintenance payments are dealt with separately from child maintenance payments.

How does spousal maintenance work?

Spousal maintenance is usually paid as a regular monthly payment. This may continue indefinitely (unless the recipient remarries), or for a certain number of years.

Sometimes, spousal maintenance may be paid as a one-off lump sum, followed by a clean break order. In this situation, each partner would achieve financial independence and be unable to make a claim against the other. This is known as a ‘clean break’.

Who is entitled to spousal maintenance?

A former spouse is entitled to spousal maintenance if they can’t support themselves financially after divorce.

But each case is different.

The length of the marriage and the specific needs of the partner will determine how much spousal maintenance should be paid and for how long.

For example, someone who’s been married for a long time and sacrificed their career will have more need for maintenance than someone who remained in work throughout the marriage.

Equally, a younger person with promising career prospects will have less need for maintenance than an older person who’s close to retirement age.

How is spousal maintenance calculated?

Unlike child maintenance payments, there’s no set formula for calculating spousal maintenance. Instead, the court will take into consideration the recipient’s needs alongside the paying partner’s ability to pay.

Some of the factors that a court will take into consideration include:

  • The financial position of both parties

  • The standard of living enjoyed during the marriage

  • The employment of both parties and earning power

  • Each partner’s potential/ability to become financially independent (like through getting a new job)

  • Whether there are children within the marriage

  • The care and welfare of children (BUT spousal maintenance shouldn’t cover child maintenance)

  • The length of the marriage

  • The age of the partners


Do I need to go to court?

You don’t need to go to court to come to a decision about spousal maintenance – you’re free to make a private arrangement with your former spouse.

Coming to a private arrangement with your formers spouse could help you save a lot of money by avoiding court. However, you should at least hire a solicitor to advise you on what you’re entitled to after a divorce.

Furthermore, going to court can ensure that there are procedures in place to protect you if your circumstances do change after a divorce.

How long does spousal maintenance last?

The length of time spousal maintenance is paid will depend on your situation.

Spousal maintenance payments are usually made over a fixed period but may continue for the entirety of a former spouse’s life in some cases.

The court can order that spousal maintenance should be paid for a specific number of years. This is called a term order.

Alternatively, the court could order that maintenance should be paid for the rest of the former spouse’s life. This is called a joint lives order.

In most cases, a court will issue a term order. So, you would pay spousal maintenance for a fixed period, or until certain conditions are met, like your children turning 18.

However, the court will make a joint lives order if they believe that your former spouse would be unable to adjust to life without the payments. This means that you would continue paying them spousal maintenance until either of you die.

You lose the right to spousal maintenance if you get remarried.

Can I stop paying spousal maintenance?

If you’ve been ordered to pay spousal maintenance, you must continue to pay it for the time agreed. Otherwise, your former spouse could take you to court.

You may be able to stop paying maintenance if your former spouse became financially independent or if you were no longer able to pay. However, you would need a court to approve this for you.

You’ll automatically no longer need to pay maintenance if your ex remarries. But you’ll still have to pay if they’re cohabiting with someone. In this situation, you would need to apply to the court if you felt like you shouldn’t be paying maintenance anymore.

Otherwise, spousal maintenance payments ends when either partner dies.

Can spousal maintenance payments be changed?

Either the payer of the maintenance or the recipient can apply to court to change the amount of spousal maintenance and the terms on which it’s paid.

Typically, you might want to change the amount if your circumstances change.

For example, if the recipient got a new job, the payer could make the case that the recipient no longer needs the maintenance payments. Alternatively, the payer could say that they’re unable to keep up with the payments if they were to lose their job.

Furthermore, the payer can apply at any time to pay the remaining spousal maintenance as a one-off lump sum.

The types of spousal maintenance

There are three types of spousal maintenance order that the court can make.

Joint lives order/ lifetime spousal maintenance order

A lifetime spousal maintenance order, or joint lives order, is where maintenance is paid for the rest of the recipient’s life (or until they get remarried).

A joint lives order might be appropriate after a long marriage where the court decides that the recipient is unlikely to achieve financial independence any time soon.

This may be because the partner has been out of the workplace for so long that they have little realistic chance of holding down a steady job.

Alternatively, a joint lives order may be appropriate where the recipient is the main caregiver to young children.

Fixed term spousal order

A fixed term spousal order is where the court orders that maintenance should be paid regularly for a certain number of years.

Fixed term orders tend to be more appropriate for shorter marriages (less than 5 years) where children are grown up or where there are no children. The ‘fixed’ nature of the arrangement is designed to encourage both parties to move towards financial independence.

The value of these payments can be changed if either partner goes to court. This can happen when the circumstances of either partner change. For example, if a dependent gets better-paid employment, the person paying maintenance could argue they should pay less.

Nominal spousal maintenance order

A nominal spousal maintenance order is where a nominal amount of money (typically £1) is paid to the recipient each year with the sole purpose of keeping the recipient’s claim open. This acts as a safety net in case the recipient needs spousal maintenance in the future.

A nominal order is used to provide cover for a primary caregiver who is currently financially independent but may need maintenance in the future if their circumstances were to dramatically change.

Nominal orders are typically made for a fixed time that end when certain conditions are met, such as children leaving full-time education.

Talk to a solicitor

The amount of spousal maintenance that you can claim or need to pay is specific to your circumstances.

A family solicitor will give you a good idea how much maintenance you’re entitled to or should be paid.

The Law Superstore lets you compare family solicitors across England and Wales. Just type in a few details to compare prices and connect with professionals.