What Is the Difference Between Alimony & Spousal Maintenance?

When two people get married, they typically vow support each other through sickness and in health. While marriage is a relationship comes with certain societal expectations regarding various customary commitments each spouse promises to uphold, there are also legal duties that arise from a marital relationship.

One marital duty that jurisdictions throughout the United States recognize is the duty to provide financial support to one’s spouse. In many states, this duty serves as the basis for ordering a divorcee to continue making payments to their former spouse even after their marriage has ended. These payments are known as alimony, spousal support, or spousal maintenance.

In general, alimony and spousal support or maintenance are terms that people use interchangeably to refer to a person’s legal obligation to provide adequate monetary assistance to their former spouse upon divorce. However, there is a subtle difference between alimony and spousal maintenance in Texas.

Texas Public Policy Against Alimony

For years, Texas courts have adopted a public policy against alimony, reasoning that divorce terminates a spouse’s duty to provide financial support to the other spouse. Accordingly, Texas courts will not issue orders requiring someone to support their spouse financially for an indefinite time.

However, Texas law does recognize obligations involving periodic payments between spouses after divorce for the purposes of helping a spouse become economically self-supporting. Rather than referring to such payments as “alimony,” Texas law classifies them as “spousal maintenance.” An award for spousal maintenance is usually commensurate with how many years the parties’ marriage lasted.

Private Agreements Recognizing Alimony

Texas law and public policy recognize the importance of preserving and respecting a person’s right and freedom to enter into contracts with others. As a result, a married couple may sign contracts with provisions concerning alimony, such as prenuptial and postnuptial contracts or divorce settlements.

But, how can contractual alimony co-exist with Texas’ public policy against alimony? Courts have resolved this issue by allowing individuals to form valid contracts that establish a party’s obligation to pay alimony, but will not issue court orders to compel someone to make alimony payments.

So, what is the difference between court-ordered alimony and contractual alimony? Court-ordered alimony involves a legal duty that is subject to judicial enforcement procedures. For example, if the court had the authority to issue alimony orders, someone who failed to pay alimony in compliance with that order could be thrown in jail for contempt of court.

Conversely, contractual alimony only creates a contractual duty to pay alimony that is not enforceable as a court order or judgment. Instead, breaching a contractual alimony provision entitles the non-breaching spouse to sue their former spouse for damages in court. A party can ask the court to enforce a breach of contract judgment using contempt procedures.

As a result, a spousal maintenance obligation designed to provide a finite amount of financial assistance to help a spouse become self-supporting can be enforced using judicial enforcement procedures like contempt of court. In contrast, a private agreement for alimony entitles the supported spouse to recover damages and other legal remedies for breach of contract.

O’Neil Wysocki P.C. Is Focused on Delivering Quality Legal Advice

Texas law regarding alimony and spousal maintenance can be somewhat confusing. Thankfully, people facing divorce issues don’t have to confront matters involving alimony or spousal maintenance on their own. At O’Neil Wysocki P.C. we have spent years of our practice litigating and negotiating about various divorce issues, including spousal support. Clients have come to trust us to provide them with effective legal representation when it comes to family law matters—and so can you!

Please schedule an appointment at O’Neil Wysocki P.C. today to consult with one of our experienced family law attorneys about your case by calling (972) 852-8000.
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