In Minnesota, money paid to an ex-spouse for his/her support after divorce is referred to as “spousal maintenance,” but the term is interchangeable with “spousal support” or “alimony.”
Maintenance is one of the most unpredictable and inconsistently handled issues in a divorce; not just in Minnesota, but in other states as well. For instance, the North Dakota Supreme Court has referred to it as the “spousal support lottery.” The implication is, divorcing parties rarely know what might be awarded in their case.
Minnesota Case Examples
Consider the following two actual Minnesota Court of Appeals cases, decided within three months of each other in 2017:
Williams v. Williams
- Husband’s income: $17,000 per month
- Wife’s income: $3,100 per month
- Maintenance: $3,100 per month (permanent)
Polla v. Polla
- Husbands income: $22,000 per month
- Wife’s income: $3,000 per month
- Maintenance: $6,000 per month (permanent)
The incomes of the parties in these cases were similar. They were not identical but were close enough to assume that the maintenance obligations would be in the same neighborhood. Wrong; one was twice the size of the other.
Why The Huge Difference?
The reason for the variation is that there are no “guidelines” used to calculate maintenance, unlike child support. Instead, courts apply “factors” to the circumstances in each case to arrive at a maintenance obligation. The facts of each case might vary significantly from the next; and therefore, the application of the factors and the ultimate award will differ considerably as well.
So far, this article hasn’t been much help. Hopefully, a few of the rules in the Minnesota Statute and case law provided below will assist readers as they attempt to decipher potential maintenance awards in their cases. But it’s still a convoluted area, so it’s wise to contact a family law attorney to ensure that rights are protected, and outcomes are as fair as possible. Without an attorney’s help, you might end up paying an improperly excessive, or receiving an imprudently scant, award.
The starting point for maintenance is Minnesota Statute 518.552. There are two grounds for awarding spousal support. The first is that one spouse lacks sufficient property to provide for his/her reasonable needs. “Property” includes the items divided by the divorce, and “reasonable” is interpreted in light of the standard of living during the marriage.
The second is that one spouse is unable to adequately support himself/herself through appropriate employment. Again “adequately support” is considered in light of the standard of marital living. “Employment” may not be required if the spouse in need of maintenance is the “custodian of a child.”
These two preliminary hurdles are confusing in themselves and intertwined to some degree. What amount of property is adequate to meet a person’s needs? What level of income provides adequate support? What if a person is awarded a lot of marital property, but has minimal income, or vice versa? Good questions and there isn’t an easy answer.
The starting point on “adequate support” will probably be whether the person’s income is enough to cover his/her expenses. If the person earns $3,000 per month, but expenses (rent, utilities, gas, groceries, debt service, etc.) are $5,000, then the person can probably make a preliminary showing of a need for maintenance. This is especially true if the parties had adequate income during the marriage to cover all their expenses.
The starting point on a property is whether a person is awarded items in the divorce sufficient to meet needs like housing, transportation, clothing, furnishings, etc. Again, the amount of property is interpreted in light of the size of the marital estate. “Marital estate” is the amount of property belonging to both spouses, which is divided in a divorce. Minnesota law creates a presumption that all assets acquired during a marriage (except gifts or inheritances) are marital property. A large marital estate will set a higher bar for “sufficient property” than a marriage with a small estate.
If a person can overcome one of the two preliminary barriers, then maintenance is available. The amount and duration of the actual obligation, are determined by applying eight statutory factors (shortened for convenience):
- The financial resources of the party seeking maintenance,
- The time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party to find appropriate employment, and become self-supporting,
- The standard of living established during the marriage,
- The duration of the marriage and absence from employment to provide homemaking services,
- The loss of earnings, seniority, retirement benefits, and other employment opportunities forgone by the spouse seeking spousal maintenance,
- The age, and the physical and emotional condition of the spouse seeking maintenance;
- The ability of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought to meet needs while meeting those of the spouse seeking maintenance, and
- The contribution of each party in the acquisition, preservation, depreciation, or appreciation in the amount or value of the marital property.
From a simplified perspective, the amount of maintenance follows common sense: it will likely be a greater amount, and for a longer duration, when the background of the parties shows they had a lot of resources, but the future indicates that one party will have significantly more resources than the other. This kind of inequity is what courts attempt to balance via spousal maintenance.
For instance, a larger and longer-lasting maintenance obligation will more likely be imposed when the marital standard of living was greater, the party seeking maintenance has substantially lower income than the other and/or receives more of the marital property than the other, the marriage was for a longer duration, the parties’ ages are higher, and party seeking maintenance brought or contributed a large amount of energy, income, and other resources into the marriage.
The exact outcome from the application of the factors will depend on the independent and combined financial circumstances in each case, a person’s ability to reliably demonstrate and substantiate his/her claims, amounts, appraisals, etc., and persuasively argue application in a favorable manner.
Spousal maintenance is a labyrinth. Courts sometimes seem as confused on the topic as litigants, which has led to the inconsistent results experienced by divorcing parties around Minnesota currently. By carefully considering the maintenance factors, corroborating claims with reliable records, and convincingly arguing a position to the Court, parties can give themselves the best chance at a favorable result.
If you have questions regarding the topic of this article, or for assistance with spousal maintenance, or other family law issues, please call 701-297-2890.
The information contained in this article and on this website is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact an attorney to obtain advice with respect to your particular set of facts.