Alimony vs. spousal maintenance: Is there a difference?

This article looks at the differences between spousal maintenance and contractual alimony in Texas.

While the terms are often used interchangeably, there are important distinctions

People are often confused when talking about Texas alimony laws, especially given that Texas differs considerably from other states when setting out alimony requirements. One of the biggest questions people have, according to a recent article in the Houston Chronicle, is whether spousal maintenance and alimony both refer to the same thing. While it is true that alimony often refers to spousal maintenance, there is also another term, contractual alimony, which is very different from what most people mean when they refer to maintenance or alimony.

What does Texas have?

In general, the vast majority of cases in Texas that people would describe as alimony are, in fact, instances of spousal maintenance. Spousal maintenance is ordered by the courts, meaning one spouse is required to make payments to the other spouse for a specified period of time. According to the Dallas Morning News, spousal maintenance was changed considerably in 2011. The maximum payment amounts were increased to $5,000 or 20 percent of the payer's gross earnings. The change in the law left it to the courts to determine the "reasonable needs" of a person seeking spousal maintenance.

Before the changes in 2011, it was notoriously difficult in Texas for spouses to seek spousal support from an ex-spouse. While the changes brought Texas somewhat in line with other states, as regards spousal maintenance, the truth is that proving that a person has a "reasonable need" for such maintenance is still quite difficult and often requires considerable professional legal advice.

Contractual alimony

One term that deserves closer attention is contractual alimony. Although many people refer to alimony in Texas, they are usually referring to spousal maintenance and not contractual alimony. The distinction can be confusing for people who are wondering what contractual alimony is.

Contractual alimony is an agreement by both spouses regarding payments from one spouse to another. Because contractual alimony cannot be ordered by a court, it is very different from spousal maintenance. It is also important to keep in mind that contractual alimony, compared to spousal maintenance, is very rare in Texas, although it is certainly an option for some divorcing couples.

Divorce issues

Texas family law can be notoriously complex and difficult to navigate for people who have not been trained in the intricacies of the state's legal system. Anybody who has a family law issue that they need resolved, including concerns about alimony or spousal maintenance, should contact a family lawyer as soon as possible. Any legal decision made during a divorce can have serious consequences later on, meaning that expert legal advice is necessary for most divorcing spouses to make sure they are well-informed about whatever steps they choose to take.

Keywords: alimony, spousal maintenance, differences, Texas, divorce