Should spousal support be limited to a set term?

SupportMissouri has interesting legislation pending on spousal maintenance.  The legislation is HB247.  This legislation has apparently passed the Committee on Civil Proceedings by a vote of 8 – 4.  The sponsor of the bill is Representative Meredith.

It is unclear whether this bill will pass the House of Representatives or not.  If it were to pass, it would go to the State Senate.  If it were to pass the Senate, it would be presented to the Governor.  The Governor would then have to make a decision on whether to sign or veto the bill.

The legislation has caused a stir in the legal community for several reasons.  By the plain language of the proposed legislation, “[a]ll maintenance orders must include a termination date of not more than five years from the date of the entry of the original order.

As it pertains to maintenance orders in effect already, “Any maintenance obligation in effect on the effective date of these provisions and not in arrears may be automatically terminated six months after the maintenance has been paid for five years or six months after the effective date of these provisions.

As maintenance currently stands now in Missouri under 452.335 RSMo., “[t]he maintenance order shall be in such amounts and for such periods of time as the court deems just, and after considering all relevant factors…

Further, the statute stays: “[t]he maintenance order shall state if it is modifiable or nonmodifiable. The court may order maintenance which includes a termination date. Unless the maintenance order which includes a termination date is nonmodifiable, the court may order the maintenance decreased, increased, terminated, extended, or otherwise modified based upon a substantial and continuing change of circumstances which occurred prior to the termination date of the original order.

In short, the way spousal maintenance works now in Missouri is that maintenance awards are generally modifiable and open-ended.  In other words, most maintenance awards simply state the amount of spousal maintenance to be paid and that it is modifiable upon a change of circumstance of a substantial and continuing nature, remarriage or death.  This gives payor spouses the ability to come back to court to try to modify it later.

The reality is that it is not easy to modify a maintenance award.  A party has to file a motion to modify and essentially litigate a modification action — just like they had to litigate their original divorce.  This can cost lots of attorney’s fees, lots of time and then many ultimately fail in their attempt to modify maintenance.  Proponents of this litigation would certainly cite these factors

On the other hand, critics of this legislation would argue that a strict five-year limitation is arbitrary.  In other words, take a 40-year marriage for example.  Is it fair that a party only pay five-years of maintenance if their spouse has been out of the work-force 40-years?  What if the spouse receiving maintenance has no job skills and no realistic chance of gaining meaningful employment?  What if they are disabled?  Additionally, as to awards already in effect, will attempting to modify current spousal maintenance awards even pass constitutional muster?  Is this then an ex post facto law?  What kind of hardship would this cause on individuals receiving maintenance already?

At the end of the day, spousal maintenance is a difficult issue.  Reasonable people can come to different conclusions about the exact language of spousal maintenance statutes.  It’s certainly an issue that often results in lots of parties taking their family law case to trial.  There is no question as well that under Missouri law, the current spousal maintenance statute can often result in a party paying no maintenance or paying maintenance for an indefinite period of time.  This can make spousal maintenance an all or nothing proposition for litigants.  As case law has developed in Missouri, term maintenance is rare in Missouri except in cases where the court can point to a specific date where spousal maintenance will no longer be needed.

However, versus a strict five-year limitation, which is an arbitrary number, perhaps Missouri would want to look to the example of other states. Florida has an interesting alimony statute, for example, that limits durational alimony to the length of the marriage.  If limits on the length of maintenance awards is going to happen in Missouri no matter the complaints of critics, perhaps an approach like this might be more reasonable than the current legislation pending in Missouri?

Regardless, if you have a spousal maintenance matter, or questions about a potential modification, Stange Law Firm, PC can help.  You can reach us at 1-855-805-0595.

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