How Long Does Spousal Support Last?

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Whether you are a spouse in need of help covering your living expenses or the one writing the checks, understanding how alimony works in Michigan is key to budgeting for spousal support after a marriage. Many Michigan residents come to divorce attorneys near them asking “how long does spousal support last” and wondering whether there is anything they can do to change their alimony payments or obligations.

Types of Spousal Support in Michigan

Spousal support (formerly called alimony) is financial assistance paid by one spouse to the other spouse during or after a divorce action. There are several types of spousal support in Michigan.

Temporary Spousal Support

As soon as you (or your spouse) file a complaint for divorce, you can ask the Michigan family court to award you temporary spousal support or to adopt an order requiring you to pay temporary spousal support in lieu of paying bills as usual (bills should be paid as usual until such an order is entered, or until it is agreed or determined by the court that there will be no spousal support). As the name suggests, this order doesn’t last forever. Instead, it requires the payor spouse to contribute to the living expenses of the payee spouse while the divorce action is pending. A temporary spousal support order ends when the Judgment of Divorce is signed.

Rehabilitative and Permanent Spousal Support

There are two types of alimony awards that can be included in your Judgment of Divorce:

  • Rehabilitative Spousal Support is designed to bridge the gap to allow the supported spouse to transition into full-time employment, receive additional education or training, or stay at home until the parties’ children are in school. For example, if the cost of child care exceeds the amount of money the potential support recipient could earn in wages, forcing a spouse to go to work may not be the best short-term solution and instead, supporting their education or training goals may be wiser so they can support themselves eventually.
  • Spousal support for a particular term can be agreed-upon by the parties or ordered by the Court. Only the parties can agree to make the term non-modifiable but they must acknowledge in a signed writing that they understand they are waiving their statutory right to seek modification of the duration of their alimony payments.
  • Permanent Spousal Support is awarded based on the recipient spouse’s inability to work or otherwise pay for their own expenses, often due to age or a physical or mental disability.

Both of these spousal support awards carry on after the marriage is over and the Judgment of Divorce is entered. However, how long they last depends on the specific language in the order.

Alimony in Gross

Some judgments of divorce include language that looks like a spousal support award when it may really be a property settlement labeled as spousal support to protect payments from discharge in bankruptcy, or part-support and part-property settlement. “Alimony in gross” is typically a lump sum or part-lump-sum/part-periodic payments, and may include part of the division of marital assets. Because any lump sum portion of alimony in gross is paid “up front”, it cannot be modified. No court can order a lump sum payment of alimony or set a non-modifiable duration of alimony payments, but the parties are free to agree on those terms.

How Long Does Spousal Support Last?

When you are trying to figure out how long your spousal support order should last, you should consider consulting with a certified divorce financial planner who can help you determine how long you need to receive, or can pay alimony depending upon your projected expenses and income after divorce. Once you have a determination either by agreement or court order, remember to keep track of it by keeping your Uniform Spousal Support Order (USSO) handy. In Michigan, all spousal support orders must be memorialized in a USSO, and the terms of the USSO supersede the terms of your Settlement Agreement and Judgment of Divorce (so read it over carefully before signing it).

Rehabilitative spousal support awards describe just how long they last by saying, for example, “Husband to pay Wife $500 per month for 60 months.” In that case, the spousal support award will end automatically after the 60th payment unless the award was modifiable and a request for modification is made. Modification can be requested after the term ends unless the term was non-modifiable, but it is probably unlikely the request will be successful.

If the award says it is permanent spousal support, or says something like “Wife to pay Husband $1,200 per month for the life of Husband” then the spousal support award will last until terminated by certain triggering events, such as wife’s retirement at a reasonable age, or by entry of a new court order terminating spousal support.

It is imperative to secure permanent spousal support with a life insurance policy or other asset of the paying spouse until the receiving spouse dies so that when the paying spouse dies, the surviving spouse does not experience a decrease or termination in payments. It is often well worth the money for the receiving spouse to pay for part or all of the life insurance premium to secure these payments, and it is imperative to receive annual proof that the life insurance policy and beneficiary remain in effect. Preserving a claim against the paying spouse’s estate is another way to try to insure the receiving spouse does not go without support until their death.

What Terminates Spousal Support?

Certain events may terminate spousal support:

  • Expiration of the rehabilitative spousal support period if the duration is not modified or is legally non-modifiable (i.e., unless the receiving spouse requests an extension)
  • Death of the payor or the recipient unless terms are negotiated to secure payments after the death of the payer via a life insurance policy or other asset
  • Remarriage of the recipient if it creates a sufficiently significant change of circumstances such that the recipient clearly no longer needs spousal support.

Many modern judgments add the cohabitation of the recipient to the list of triggering events. This prevents a formerly dependent spouse from receiving spousal support while being provided for by a new romantic partner. But again, this is something to be negotiated and cannot be ordered by the Court.

However, even after a triggering event constituting a significant change of circumstances has occurred, you may have to file a motion to terminate spousal support to stop automatic payments under an income withholding order if efforts to reach an agreement directly with your former spouse or through mediation are unsuccessful. Sometimes this is as simple as providing the court with a death certificate.

Can You File a Motion to End Spousal Support?

In general, most temporary, rehabilitative, and even permanent spousal support can be modified after the order is entered. That is because spousal support is “equitable” and “modifiable.” It depends on what is fair to both parties. You may be able to file a motion to reduce or end spousal support that you did not already legally agree to make non-modifiable if:

  • The recipient spouse’s income has increased significantly
  • The payor lost their job or has significantly reduced income (not voluntarily - voluntary reduction of income opens a big can of worms and will require the court to decide whether to impute the payer’s prior income regardless of their decision to take a lesser-paying job)
  • The payor retired
  • The recipient or payer has become eligible for government assistance such as Medicaid or Medicare

At the same time, spousal support can also be modified upward unless you agreed to a legally binding non-modifiable award. As the recipient spouse, you may be able to increase the amount or duration of your spousal support award by showing:

  • Your education has been delayed (not voluntarily)
  • Inability to find suitable employment. Suitable employment if you have minor children is limited to employment in your geographic area
  • Physical or mental disability that did not exist at the time support was agreed-upon or ordered
  • Increases to your reasonable expenses beyond anticipated costs of living

Note that you can’t end spousal support or increase the amount owed based on a spouse’s bad conduct. As the payor, you don’t get to control how the recipient spends the money they receive. Recipients aren’t automatically entitled to a payor’s increased wages after the marriage ends. Instead, if you are filing a motion to modify spousal support it should be based on either the recipient’s need or the payor’s ability to pay the amount ordered.

Non-Modifiable Spousal Support Agreements

The uncertainty in spousal support awards can make some Michigan residents nervous. Michigan case law allows parties to enter into settlement agreements and consent judgments of divorce including “non-modifiable spousal support.” These agreements waive both spouses’ statutory ability and right to file motions to modify spousal support, holding both payor and recipient to the language of the order itself. These non-modifiable spousal support agreements are hard to set aside, but they can be useful in “gray divorces” where the payor is anticipating retirement, or when a recipient needs to be able to rely on the amount ordered. However, if both parties do not agree, the court cannot order non-modifiable spousal support because spousal support is always modifiable under Michigan’s statutory laws.

Talk to a Michigan Spousal Support Attorney

At NSSSB, our divorce attorneys know how to calculate how long spousal support will last, and have strategies to make sure recipients are provided for and payors aren’t unnecessarily burdened by inappropriate awards. Our Southeast Michigan family law attorneys help our clients reach fair and equitable spousal support agreements, and are happy to file motions to end or extend spousal support when life changes. We want to make sure you are supported, even after the divorce is over. Click here to schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.

Categories: Spousal Support