Maintenance (alimony, spousal support, etc.) is designed to help support a former spouse after a divorce. It is NOT an entitlement—former spouses have no “right” to maintenance. Whether a spouse receives maintenance, how much, and for how long, depends on several factors listed in Wisconsin law. These factors include the length of the marriage, the parties’ health, their respective earnings (or earnings potential), the allocation of property, whether there were any agreements for support, whether a party sacrificed income for childcare, etc. The purpose of maintenance is to allow both parties to live at a reasonably equal post-divorce standard of living until the recipient spouse can support her/himself without it. Maintenance is usually granted for a specific period of time, but can be extended for good cause. It can also be awarded indefinitely, often after particularly long marriages where the spouses’ incomes are very unbalanced. Another option is to hold maintenance open for a brief period if changes are expected in the spouses’ finances. Unlike child support, which is based on a specific formula applied in all cases, the amount and duration of spousal maintenance is left to the judge’s discretion. Therefore, the outcome is never guaranteed, and is particularly dependent on the facts of the marriage and the judge’s views. Keep in mind, maintenance is only available to former spouses. Regardless of how long a couple’s relationship may be, if they never married, neither couple can request maintenance from the other when the relationship ends.
An experienced family lawyer can make an educated guess as to the length and amount of maintenance a spouse might receive. However, because there is no right to maintenance, the lawyer cannot guarantee an outcome. Even after long marriages, or if one spouse’s income is much higher than the other’s, maintenance can be denied. Because the award of maintenance is so dependent on facts and argument, the lawyer’s role becomes particularly important. An experienced divorce attorney will present the facts and law in a way that is comfortable and understood by the judge. The lawyer and client should work together to tell the story of the marriage, and why maintenance is fair and necessary for the recipient spouse. Because a spouse only has one chance to receive maintenance, it is vital to make the best argument at the initial divorce judgment to ensure a fair outcome.