What is spousal maintenance?

When a relationship breaks down, former partners’ lives will inevitably change in a variety of ways. Often, this will involve adjusting to different financial circumstances. A court may order one partner to pay the other a reasonable amount to reduce the financial pressures of separation. Whilst ‘spousal maintenance’ is the term formally used in Australian law, it is also referred to elsewhere as ‘alimony’.

When does a court award spousal maintenance?

In 2016, The High Court in Hall v Hall explained the circumstances where spousal maintenance may be awarded. The High Court said that spousal maintenance was appropriate after separation if one party cannot afford to adequately support themselves, and the other party can reasonably afford to assist with that support.

How long may spousal maintenance last?

Spousal maintenance may be ordered in the short or long term. This will depend on whether a party only needs assistance in the immediate future, or whether they require ongoing support.

What will a court consider?

Spousal maintenance is not awarded in all cases – a court will balance a number of different considerations before making a final decision, including:

  • The income and assets of each party;
  • Whether there will be a significant change in lifestyle after separation;
  • Whether there are any particular financial pressures one party may incur without the financial support of their partner, for example, having to care for children
  • Whether the party seeking spousal maintenance has re-partnered and, if so, the financial circumstances of that relationship

For example, one partner may have a significant income, and the other may not work at all. If that couple were to separate, the unemployed partner may be forced to adjust to an entirely different lifestyle, and may encounter difficult financial challenges as a result. If that was the case, a court would probably order spousal maintenance payable by their former partner.

What kind of things may spousal maintenance cover?

Generally, spousal maintenance aims to assist with the lifestyle changes a partner may encounter as a result of their separation. The matters a court may consider include:

  • Whether one party can afford access to an appropriate level of medical care;
  • Whether one party can afford vehicle maintenance, or ongoing utility bills;
  • Basic expenses such as food, clothing or technology;
  • Whether caring for children restricts a party’s ability to provide for themselves with their own income stream. For example, if a partner, post-separation, must reduce their working hours to care for children, this will be considered

It is important to remember that courts do not always aim to keep a partner in the exact same standard of living as before the separation. For example, a wealthy couple may eat at gourmet restaurants each night because of the high income of one partner. If the couple were to separate, a court will not necessarily order the wealthier party to provide an amount that allows their former partner to continue eating at expensive restaurants each night. However, they may require the wealthier party to provide enough to ensure that their former partner can still maintain a healthy diet.

Could you be eligible for spousal maintenance?

This information sheet is only general, and whether a person may be eligible for spousal maintenance will depend upon all the considerations outlined above. There is no steadfast rule for when a person may receive spousal maintenance, so it is recommended that you speak to our experienced family law team if you have any further queries.

For more information on this, please book an appointment with us today or contact our Family Law team at Tonkin Legal Group on (03) 9435 9044.