The divorce process can be difficult regardless of the reasons why a marriage is ending, the level of conflict between the spouses, or the complexity of the issues that will need to be addressed. Moreover, there are some situations where a spouse may be uncertain how they will provide for themselves after the marriage has ended, because the other spouse had a substantially higher income. If that is the case, spousal support (alimony) may be appropriate. Alimony, known as spousal maintenance in Wisconsin, is awarded by the court when it determines that payments should be made by one spouse to the other during or after a divorce. In cases where spousal maintenance is ordered, it is important to understand the factors that may be considered in assessing spousal maintenance and the steps one can take to protect financial interests.

Factors That May Play a Role in Decisions to Award Spousal Support

While there are numerous situations where one spouse may believe that spousal maintenance is appropriate, spousal support is usually based on need. It is meant to ensure a fair and equitable outcome for both parties in a divorce. The purpose of spousal maintenance is to make sure a spouse who relied on their former partner’s income will be able to maintain their standard of living. When determining spousal maintenance—including the amount one spouse will pay to the other and the length of time that payments will last— the court may consider the following factors:

  • The length of the marriage – Spousal support tends to be more likely if the couple was together for an extended period, typically 10 years or more. In a longer marriage, a couple will have established a standard of living, and they may have become used to arrangements in which one spouse earned the majority of the couple’s income, while the other spouse handled other responsibilities. In these cases, maintenance may help ensure that both spouses can continue living in the way they have become accustomed to.

  • The ages of the parties and the health issues that affect them – A judge may consider each spouse’s physical and mental health to determine whether they can support themselves or pursue new employment opportunities. A spouse who is older, has disabilities, or other health issues may be unable to meet their own needs without assistance. Spouses facing these situations may be eligible to receive spousal support.

  • Current income and earning potential – The amount of income currently being earned by each spouse will be considered, and a court will also look at the income they are expected to earn based on their education and work experience. Decisions made about child custody may also play a role in determining a spouse’s income-earning capacity, since a parent who will be responsible for providing the majority of the child care may not be able to work full time and fully support themselves.

  • A spouse’s ability to become self-supporting – If the spouse who earns a lower income is able to increase their income-earning capacity in the years following the divorce, by pursuing a college degree or receiving other forms of training, this may be a factor in determining how long spousal support will be paid.

  • Contributions by one spouse to the other – Any actions taken by one spouse during the marriage that provided financial benefits for the other spouse may be considered. For example, if a spouse helped their former partner pursue a college education and provided services at home to allow their partner to focus on work responsibilities, this may have benefited their partner’s income and career. As a result, spousal support may be paid to ensure that a spouse can continue to benefit from the contributions they have made.

  • Division of assets – The division of marital property may be a factor in decisions about spousal support. Instead of awarding spousal maintenance, one spouse may receive a larger share of marital property, providing them with the resources to meet their needs following the divorce.

  • Agreements between spouses – If a couple has a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement that states whether spousal support should be paid in the event of a divorce, the terms of this agreement may impact the award of spousal support. Other types of agreements between spouses may also be considered, including verbal agreements regarding future support.