Spousal Maintenance
- by Eric C. Nelson, Attorney

I. Initial Spousal Maintenance Awards.

Spousal maintenance awards can be difficult to predict, because unlike child support, spousal maintenance is not controlled by any legal guidelines, and both the amount and duration of an award of spousal maintenance are within the broad discretion of the trial court.

Essentially, an award of spousal maintenance requires three showings:
  1. Need of a party for spousal maintenance.
  2. Ability of a party to pay spousal maintenance.
  3. Sufficient length of marriage to establish “entitlement”. [1]
Spousal maintenance decisions are based on the following main factors: [2]
  • Length of the marriage.
  • Standard of Living during the marriage.
  • Income of both parties.
  • Living expenses of both parties.
  • Age of both parties.
  • Property apportioned to each spouse in the divorce.
  • Education and employability of the spouse seeking maintenance.
  • Any disability status affecting employability.
Legally the Court is also required to consider the contributions of each party to the marital estate. [3] In practice, however, contributions of each spouse are almost always treated as equal, even if one party did nothing but park him/herself on the couch and watch TV for 30 years while the working spouse yelled at him/her every day to quit being a bum and get a job. The prevailing attitude seems to be that since marriage is a partnership, and you didn’t divorce the lazy bum sooner, then you’re stuck with those partnership terms.

From experience, I have observed the following
general parameters for spousal maintenance, with the caveat that there are exceptions to all of them:
  • a marriage of less than 5 years usually means no spousal maintenance.
  • if you’re in your early 40s or younger, the Court will expect you to obtain employment and become self-supporting at some point, whether after re-education or immediately.
  • for traditional marriages of 25 or more years, an award of “permanent” spousal maintenance is likely (assuming a sufficient need, ability to pay, and disparity of incomes).
II. Modification of Spousal Maintenance.

The term “permanent” as applied to spousal maintenance is a misnomer. Even so-called “permanent” spousal maintenance awards may be terminated, suspended, extended in length, or reduced or increased in amount, upon proof of a substantial change of circumstances to justify the modification. [4] In practice, this usually means a substantial increase or decrease in the payor or recipient’s income, although a substantial change in expenses can also justify a modification. [5] Retirement is also a common point in time at which to look at a modification of spousal maintenance, but retirement is not in and of itself a magic ticket to termination of maintenance. The Court will look at all relevant circumstances to assess the reasonableness of the retirement at the time thereof.

The only way to legally prevent future modification of spousal maintenance is for both parties to stipulate to a so-called
Karon waiver at the time the award is made. [6] This is a great way to avoid having to return to Court to readdress spousal maintenance every time there is a substantial change of circumstances, but it also locks you in, which can bite both ways depending on what the future holds. It is critical to consult an attorney before proposing or agreeing to any Karon waiver.

Footnotes:
  1. See Minnesota Statute section 518.552.
  2. Id.
  3. Id.
  4. Minnesota Statute section 518A.39, Subdivision 2.
  5. Id.
  6. Karon v. Karon, 435 N.W.2d 501 (Minn. 1989).