“I’ve grown accustomed to a certain standard of living!”
These must be the most dreaded words of divorcee’s everywhere. One of the most controversial topics in family law is spousal support. It also tends to be the least straightforward and most confusing concept for most people to grasp. Why must someone keep supporting their former spouse after they’re divorced or broken up? Doesn’t a divorce mean anything? Why can’t I just be free of that awful person once and for all?
More importantly, what circumstances qualify a person to receive spousal support? How do we figure out how much they get to be paid and for how long?
Spousal support is supposed to equalize the playing field on the breakdown of a marriage. In a marriage, it’s common to agree to a division of labour; it's not only common, it's often economically advantageous to do so. In order for one spouse to have the high stress, demanding job outside of the home and the beautiful family at home, it truly makes it easier to have this job, when someone else is taking care of the children and taking care of most other tasks that are necessary for everyday life.
Even though now it’s more common that both partners in a marriage will work, spousal support still plays a critical role for partners with children. Having children takes a lot of time and effort. For the first five years, they’re not in school and when they get sick, the daycares won’t take them. This means figuring out who can stay home with your kid or finding an alternate caregiver. Then when they are in school, their schedule does not match up with a regular workday (let alone a job where a person works extended hours or does shift work). Worst of all, kids under 16 or 17 are not able to drive themselves to and from their various activities. Even if you believe in dolphin parenting over helicopter parenting, kids still need a lot of love, care, and attention.
So even when both partners work and pitch in with the care of children, one parent tends to take the career hit in order to be there for their children. This is where spousal support comes in when a marriage is at an end. Moving forward after a marriage, it would not be fair if the person that was in the supporting role and cared for the children (and sometimes continues to care for the children) was then expected to live on their much smaller salary, and be deprived of the benefit of the much larger salary of their spouse (especially when they helped that spouse attain qualifications necessary to earn that higher salary).
At law, spousal support will be ordered only if you’re found to be entitled to it. There are three grounds of entitlement: compensatory, non-compensatory, and contractual. Compensatory spousal support is for scenarios exactly like we’ve been talking about; where one spouse supported the other in their career, had their career put on hold because of children etc., or where one spouse was encouraged to stay home and not work for whatever reason. In wealthier families, simply the standard of living that the stay at home socialite comes to expect is a reason for spousal support.
Non-compensatory grounds for spousal support is when your spouse has a need for support. This often occurs in situations where one spouse is sick and cannot support themselves. This is a funny ground; this is the government saying that when you entered into a relationship with this person, you agreed that you would support them. Now that your relationship is over, your obligation to support this person continues. It has always seemed to me that it’s a social safety net the government needs to have in place to help them keep the costs of disability down and also ensure that there is not a large number of suddenly indigent people due to divorce.
Contractual spousal support is exactly as it sounds, when the people entering the relationship have made a marriage contract that stipulates spousal support will be paid on the breakdown of the relationship.
Once a spouse qualifies for spousal support by meeting the entitlement test, the next question is how much money do they get and for how long? This is where the calculations become fuzzier. The factors that a court will look at are incomes of the parties, budgets of the parties, length of the relationship, whether or not there are children and one spouse is paying child support (if they are, quantum of spousal support decreases), how the rest of your property was divided and the reasons why spousal support is required.
The first step to determining a potential quantum for spousal support is to determine the range for the length of time you will have to pay and the amount you may have to pay. The easiest way to get this range is to plug your information into a calculator that can run the various calculations according to the Spousal Support Advisory Guidelines (SSAGs). The SSAGs are well-accepted guidelines for determining quantums for spousal support by the courts, but they can go outside of the range if they feel it is appropriate. A free online calculator for determining spousal support is “My Support Calculator” (Google it). The calculator will spit out a range of quantums: i.e. $265/month to $601/month for 2-8 years.
Exactly where you will fall within these ranges will depend a bit more on the reasons you need spousal support, the nature of your relationship during the marriage, and the disposable income of the parties.
For younger people and short marriages, spousal support is not very often indefinitely payable. It often comes with an end date, a time by which the spouse should have figured out how to get on their feet after the marriage. Similarly, it often comes with the provision that it ends when the person is in a new marriage-like relationship. For longer relationships and later in life divorces, spousal support is very often an indefinite obligation, which doesn’t necessarily mean permanent, just no fixed end date.
So, whether you like it or not, breaking up is hard to do and you may have to pay for it too.