Wisconsin Spousal Maintenance
Maury D. Beaulier, Esq.
"Alimony" is the term used in many states for financial support paid to a ex-spouse
after a divorce. In Wisconsin the term "alimony" has been replaced with the term
"Spousal Maintenance." The terms are synonymous.
Maintenance is most often used to provide temporary financial support from
one spouse to another when that spouse was financially dependent on the other
during the marriage. In most instances maintenance is designed to provide the
necessary support for a spouse until he or she either remarries or becomes
self-supporting. In some states, an award of alimony may be based on
marital fault. However, Wisconsin is a "no fault" divorce state which
means that perceived marital misconduct such as infidelity or abuse are not
considered in determining support obligations. Spousal Maintenance is an
obligation that is independent of child support and property settlement
Unlike Wisconsin's child support statutes, there are no percentage guidelines
to determine when spousal maintenance is appropriate or at what level. In
Wisconsin, trial courts have broad discretion in deciding whether to award
maintenance and in determining its duration and amount. As a result, spousal
maintenance often becomes one of the most contested issues in divorce
Spousal Maintenance Factors
Currently, Spousal Maintenance awards are granted pursuant to Wisconsin
Statutes § 767.26. Under this law the courts are guided by ten factors that
should be considered in determining a spousal maintenance award. The factors
- The length of the marriage.
- The age and physical and emotional health of the parties.
- The division of property made in the divorce.
- The educational level of each party at the time of marriage and at the
time the action is commenced.
- The earning capacity of the party seeking maintenance, including
educational background, training, employment skills, work experience, length
of absence from the job market, custodial responsibilities for children and
the time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training
to enable the party to find appropriate employment.
- The feasibility that the party seeking maintenance can be-come
self-supporting at a standard of living reasonably comparable to that
enjoyed during the marriage, and, if so, the length of time necessary to
achieve this goal.
- The tax consequences to each party.
- Any mutual agreement made by the parties before or during the marriage,
according to the terms of which one party has made financial or service
contributions to the other with the expectation of reciprocation or other
compensation in the future, where such repayment has not been made, or any
mutual agreement made by the parties before or during the marriage
concerning any arrangement for the financial support of the parties.
- The contribution by one party to the education, training or increased
earning power of the other.
- Such other factors as the court may in each individual case determine to
No single factor is dispositive and the Courts must weigh all factors giving
appropriate weight to each.
One important factor in determining whether spousal maintenance is paid and
for how long is the length of the marriage. Shorter marriages often result in no
award of spousal maintenance or lesser awards. Longer marriages may result in
long term or even permanent awards. A second important factor in determining the
level of spousal maintenance is the standard of living the parties enjoyed
during the marriage. When faced with a long term marriage (fifteen years or
more), often Wisconsin trial courts begin their evaluation of spousal
maintenance with the proposition that a spouse that is dependant on the other
for financial support is entitled to 50% of the earnings of both parties. This
is considered to be a starting point for equalizing the standard of living for
Denials and Modifications of Maintenance
If the parties are unable to resolve disputes
related to spousal maintenance, a court may:
- award spousal maintenance;
- reserve spousal maintenance (not award maintenance
currently but leave the matter open for further review);
- deny spousal maintenance.
Awards of spousal maintenance may be "temporary" or
"rehabilitative", designed to rehabilitate the spouse so that he/she may
become self-supporting, or "permanent."
No matter whether spousal maintenance is awarded, denied or reserved after a
trial, the issue may be always be readdressed and spousal maintenance modified
upon a showing that there has been a substantial change in circumstance making
the original award (or denial) unreasonable or unfair. Under most circumstances
spousal maintenance automatically terminates when one spouse dies or the spouse
receiving maintenance remarries.
From a practical standpoint, it is unlikely that a Court denying spousal
maintenance would later change that determination absent compelling
circumstances. A compelling circumstance may include a critical illness
befalling the party seeking maintenance which renders that person incapable of
working or providing for their own support. There would also have to be a
showing that the person from whom maintenance is sought has the ability to
Temporary awards of spousal maintenance usually dictate factual presumptions
on which the award is based. For example, maintenance may be awarded for a
period of five (5) years at a certain level predicated on the recipient
enrolling in and completed educational courses and finding employment in that
period of time. Either party may bring the matter back before the Court if the
recipient becomes self supporting at an earlier date or, through no fault of
his/her own, fails to find employment within the designated period. Orders
setting forth detailed educational and employment time lines on which the
maintenance award is based tend to favor the person paying spousal maintenance
since the recipient must demonstrate good cause why the time lines were not
followed or achieved to extend the spousal maintenance beyond that period.
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