There has been a lot of buzz lately about a new Florida law that prohibits the granting of lifetime spousal maintenance (better known as alimony) along with other changes to the Florida alimony system. This law has ignited a nationwide discussion about how spousal maintenance should work given drastic changes to American family culture. This article by Littleton Family Law Attorney Bonnie Shields will help you understand how spousal maintenance works in Colorado and why these laws are being debated.
How Spousal Maintenance Has Traditionally Worked
In the early part of the 20th century, marriage was a lasting bond and divorces were relatively rare. In these more traditional times, one spouse typically worked while the other remained at home to keep the house and raise the children. Because it was expected that a marriage commitment last forever and because of the traditional financial dependence of one spouse on the other, when divorces occurred the courts tended to award alimony for very long periods of time, often even for the lifetime of your former spouse.
Over the years society has changed and the traditional marriage has largely been forgotten. Today divorce is common place and more often than not both spouses work. The legal system itself has come to recognize these changes and as a result is now trending away from long term alimony awards. Lifetime spousal maintenance awards are no longer the norm in a divorce. However, judges continue to have wide discretion in awarding alimony and this discretion sometimes leads to outcomes that may seem absurd in modern society.
Why Alimony Reform is Being Debated
By the end of the last century roughly half of all marriages ended in divorce. Spouses are becoming less and less financially dependent upon each other because in most households both spouses work. These changes tend to undercut some of the original logic of the spousal maintenance system.
At its core, spousal maintenance is intended to prevent a financially dependent former spouse from becoming dependent on government assistance to survive after a divorce. In more progressive legal systems spousal maintenance is also used to rehabilitate a former spouse’s occupational prospects by sometimes affording them the opportunity for additional education or job training. As the focus of spousal maintenance becomes more and more about developing self-sufficiency instead of simply maintaining lifestyle, the notion of lifetime alimony has become controversial.
Those who support the prohibition on lifetime spousal maintenance argue that promoting self-sufficiency by only providing alimony for a limited period of time is better for society as a whole. For those who share this view point, alimony is looked at as a sort of private welfare system which is frequently abused.
The other side of this argument is that an absolute ban on lifetime spousal maintenance could harm those who need the lifetime assistance the most. Consider for instance an elderly divorcee who hasn’t worked for several decades. Someone in this position, without receiving a lifetime maintenance award, could end up either living on government assistance or trying to re-enter the workforce in their 70’s and 80’s without any relevant work experience.
What the Future Holds
It’s unclear what will happen next in this realm of law. There is little doubt other states will follow Florida’s lead and begin imposing statutory bans or restrictions on lifetime spousal maintenance awards. Here in Colorado the legislature is considering a bill that would attempt to make alimony more “fair” by establishing a more formulaic method of determining the alimony award.
Stay tuned to this website for more information about spousal maintenance laws.