Common Questions About Spousal Maintenance

When people get divorced, they’re ready to cut ties with their ex-spouse and move on to the future. However, joining your life to another person through the legal process of marriage creates certain bonds that aren’t always easily broken.

Having mutual children is one situation that bonds a couple for life, regardless of divorce or distance. Spousal maintenance is another connection that keeps people tied to one another after divorce. While some may resent the arrangement, spousal maintenance is a legal tool that equitably divides the income of the parties.

What’s the point of spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance is a court-ordered financial payment that one ex-spouse sends to the other after the couple’s divorce is finalized. It is usually paid on a monthly basis for either a determined or indefinite amount of time.

People get married with the understanding that they will provide support to one another to build a successful life together. They pool their finances and personal labor to support the needs of their household. In some instances, one spouse takes on the sole responsibility of earning money while the other spouse leads success at home and with the couple’s children.

When couples divorce, each person must adjust to supporting their life as an individual. The law says that each person deserves to have a reasonable financial foundation to live a lifestyle similar to what they enjoyed during their marriage.  

Spousal maintenance orders provide a legal tool that the courts can use to make divorces more financially fair. It’s important to remember that spousal maintenance orders are not the legal system’s punishment for “marital wrongdoing.” Spousal maintenance orders follow specific calculations; they operate with oversight by the court; and they don’t generally last forever.

How does spousal maintenance work in Illinois?

When two people go through divorce proceedings, a family court judge oversees their case. This judge makes certain rulings in order to settle the case, related to issues that typically include division of finances and assets, child custody and support, and spousal maintenance.

First, Illinois law outlines a number of factors that are the basis for an award of maintenance.   If an award is appropriate or likely, Illinois also has established guidelines that more consistently determine the amount to be paid.  Generally, the award is based on a calculation that determines what monthly cash payment, if any, one ex-spouse must pay to the other when their divorce becomes final. The calculation uses each person’s income and applies a cap so that the income or imputed income of receiving spouse plus maintenance does not exceed 40% of the total net income of both parties.  

Spousal maintenance is the law’s way of ensuring fairness, that one party will not suffer significant financial hardship as a result of the divorce.

Is spousal maintenance ordered in every divorce?

Spousal maintenance is not automatically awarded in every divorce case. Sometimes, both parties decide to waive the right to spousal maintenance. In other situations, the parties have comparable salaries, making maintenance a non-issue.  Spouses could also divide assets in a way that spousal maintenance is waived.

If one or both parties does request the court’s consideration of spousal maintenance, the judge in their case will review a number of factors to decide what’s appropriate.  

Judges have discretion in determining whether spousal maintenance should be awarded in divorce cases. They consider a large number of factors, including:

  • Income and assets: How much money and property each person owns, and what regular income they earn.
  • Current standard of living: The court’s intention isn’t to facilitate a person’s luxury lifestyle, but to help them meet their basic needs at the same level as before.  
  • Ability for future earnings: How much each person is likely to earn in their future work life. In some situations, the court considers spousal maintenance to support education that may advance one party’s career goals and earning potential — eliminating the need for spousal maintenance.
  • Child custody and care concerns: Projected costs for childcare of the couple’s mutual children, especially if one party will incur a majority of those costs.
  • Marital agreements: Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements the couple may have entered into that include detail about spousal maintenance plans.

How long does spousal maintenance last?

Just as there is a calculation for determining the eligibility and payment amount of spousal maintenance in a divorce case, Illinois law provides a way to figure out how long the payments should last.

The law instructs judges to employ a table that multiplies the length of a couple’s marriage in months by a percentage “multiplier,” resulting in the number of months the spousal maintenance award should last. This multiplier table tops out at 20 years, when its instructions are for maintenance to last the length of the marriage or indefinitely.

Spousal maintenance cases may be reviewed by the court, during which time the judge can modify the order to reflect new circumstances. Spousal maintenance may also be discontinued by the court under certain circumstances.

Spousal maintenance terminates if the recipient’s ex-spouse:

  • Dies and if the payor dies.
  • Remarries
  • Cohabitates with another person as defined by Illinois law and based on prior case law. (What Defines Cohabitation?)

A person’s relationship status isn’t always clear, however, making the terms of this final circumstance a bit uncertain. Family court is the arbiter of these situations, and will ultimately decide if an ex-spouse’s new status disqualifies them from future spousal maintenance payments.  

Spousal maintenance may also be adjusted if one party’s income increases or decreases. Family court judges usually encourage the person receiving spousal maintenance to work toward a level of income with which they can self-support. Judges may adjust a spousal maintenance order based on that person’s efforts to increase their income.

Do I really have to pay spousal maintenance?

Yes, if the court orders you to pay spousal maintenance, you are required to make the payments. Failure to do so represents a violation of a court order, which can trigger court penalties. While some people find spousal maintenance payments emotionally upsetting, this law exists for the reasons of fairness.

Marriage is a major decision, tying together two people’s emotional, spiritual, and practical lives. Undoing the bonds of marriage doesn’t always happen quickly, and spousal maintenance is one tether you may be forced to endure for some time.

We’re Here to Help Answer Your Questions

For more information about how a spousal maintenance order might affect your divorce, or if you want to pursue a revision of your existing spousal maintenance order, call Sterk Family Law Group at (815) 600-8950 or you may contact us through the form below:


This is a legal advertisement from Sterk Family Law Group. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be construed as such. This article is for informational and educational purposes only.

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