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Alimony vs. spousal maintenance in Texas

While spousal maintenance is court-ordered in Texas, alimony stems from a contractual agreement.

While many people use the terms alimony and spousal maintenance interchangeably, the two are actually separate items in Texas. As a report from the Houston Chronicle notes, alimony is a contractual obligation and not a court order. It is important for divorcing couples to understand the differences between the two and how the law views both types of payments.

What is contractual alimony?

A couple that is ending a marriage could choose to come to an agreement on support payments and outline those terms in a plan. When this occurs, it is known as contractual alimony. A court cannot order someone to pay contractual alimony. Further, it is typically not subject to the same laws that govern spousal maintenance. Instead, the spouses negotiate an amount they believe to be fair.

It should be noted, however, that the Texas Family Code enables a court to hold a spouse in contempt if he or she fails to make the payments as outlined by the contract. Further, for tax purposes, the Internal Revenue Code does set forth standards by which the payments must abide to be considered alimony.

What is spousal maintenance?

When a court orders one spouse to make payments to another, it is considered spousal maintenance. There are very specific rules that Texas has to determine who may receive these payments and how much those payments must be. For example, according to the law, the marriage must have lasted at least 10 years and at least one of the following is true:

  • The spouse has a child from the marriage who has substantial care needs that would prevent the spouse from earning an income.
  • The spouse has either a physical or mental disability that prevents him or her from earning an income.
  • The spouse is unable to earn enough money to cover his or her minimum reasonable needs.

There is an exception to these rules when one spouse commits domestic violence against either the other spouse or a child. In those situations, the spouse who committed the act may be required to make payments regardless of how long the marriage lasted. It is important to note, however, that the instance of violence must have occurred either while the divorce is pending or within two years of the time the divorce was filed.

Time limits for spousal maintenance

Lastly, anyone pursuing spousal maintenance should know that the law limits how long payments may be received. Someone married for between 10 and 20 years will only qualify for five years of payments. A marriage that lasted between 20 and 30 years could result in seven years of payments, and a marriage of 30 or more years would qualify for 10 years of payments. However, Texas courts do have the flexibility to change these time limits when there is a spouse or a child with physical or mental disabilities.

To get more information on this topic, people with concerns should consult with an attorney.