Grounds for Texas alimony are narrow; duration and amount restricted

Texas spousal maintenance law is unique among all the states.

An alimony award can make all the difference in the future quality of life of divorcing people in Texas. Called maintenance in Texas law, the available terms of an alimony award are quite restricted, as compared to those allowed in most other states.

While in some states - but not all - judges are given broad discretion to craft alimony awards, Texas judges are relatively restricted in matters of eligibility, amount and duration of payments.

The parties may negotiate a contract for spousal maintenance and are not required to comply with the restrictions a judge would have.

Eligibility

Many states see alimony as a way to enable the obligee (recipient) to maintain the standard of living equal to or at least closer to the standard of living the parties had during marriage. Texas does not follow this trend. Texas sees maintenance not as a way to equalize living standards, but rather, as a safety net so an ex-spouse can meet "minimum reasonable needs."

Under this standard, one spouse could earn much more money than the other, but that alone would not justify alimony, unless the one earning less could not meet minimum reasonable needs (and also one of the other grounds of eligibility).

To be eligible, an ex-spouse must not have enough property after divorce to meet his or her minimum reasonable needs, plus one of these:

  • Recent obligor conviction or deferred adjudication for a crime of family violence against the obligee or the obligee's child
  • Obligee's "incapacitating physical or mental disability" that prevents earning enough to meet minimum reasonable needs
  • Marriage of at least 10 years and the obligee is not able to earn enough to meet minimum reasonable needs; obligee must show that he or she has diligently tried to earn enough money or develop skills to meet his or her own minimum reasonable needs
  • Obligee cannot work enough to meet minimum reasonable needs because he or she cares for a minor or adult child of the marriage who has severe mental or physical disabilities

Factors

Once the judge finds eligibility, he or she must consider all relevant factors, including 11 specific things, in designing the award:

  • Each person's ability to meet minimum reasonable needs
  • Each person's education and vocational skills
  • Marriage duration
  • Obligee's age, work history, earning capacity and "physical and emotional condition"
  • Child support or alimony payment's impact on ability to meet needs
  • Overspending; abnormal wasting of property; or hiding or fraudulently disposing of property
  • Contribution by one to the other's education or career
  • Assets brought into marriage
  • Homemaker contributions
  • "Marital misconduct," including adultery and cruelty
  • Family violence

Notably, some other states do not allow consideration of marital misconduct.

Amount

The monthly payment ordered may not be more than the lower of $5,000 or one-fifth of the obligor's average monthly gross income.

Duration

Only if eligibility is based on the obligee or child's disability may the judge order ongoing maintenance, so long as the impairments continue. Otherwise, duration is limited to:

  • Five years if eligibility based on family violence in a marriage of under 10 years; or the marriage was 10 to 20 years
  • Seven years for marriage of 20 to 30 years
  • Ten years for marriage of 30 years or more

Within those limits, the duration must be the "shortest reasonable period" that would allow the obligee to earn enough to meet minimum reasonable needs, unless this ability is substantially lessened by disability, caring for a young child of the marriage or "another compelling impediment."

Texas family lawyer Michael Tracton of the Sugar Land Law Office of Michael D. Tracton, P.C., represents clients throughout southeast Texas in divorce and related family law matters, including alimony.