When you’re going through a divorce, thinking about the future can be scary. That can be especially true if you made less income than your spouse. That fear can turn into aggravation and even second-guessing if you made sacrifices in your career to be more available to the children. Now you must figure out how to put a budget together for the next chapter of your life. It’s natural and logical to ask if a working wife can get alimony in the state of Texas.
The short answer is yes, a working spouse can receive spousal support in Texas. Whether a court will rule that way depends on several external factors, including the spouse’s future job prospects, previous sacrifices made and commitments that were made to the career of the higher-earning spouse.
As divorce lawyers, we must point out an important detail on terminology. Alimony in Texas is called either spousal support or spousal maintenance. Which term is used depends on how the settlement is reached (more on that later). Furthermore, we also know that there are many couples where the wife is the higher earning spouse.
All of which is to say that even though terms like “alimony” are used colloquially and its impact on a working wife per se is asked most often, we like to aim for the highest level of legal precision. Henceforth, we will use the terms of spousal support and maintenance, along with referring to the spouses interchangeably.
Understanding Spousal Support & Spousal Maintenance
You can reach your divorce settlement in one of two ways. The hope is that an agreement will be negotiated with your spouse, either directly or with the benefit of a third-party mediator. When that happens, the payments are termed “spousal support”.
If negotiation and mediation does not work, a Texas family law judge will have to settle the disputed issues. In this case, payments made to an ex-spouse are considered spousal maintenance.
Spouses are given wide latitude in what they might negotiate between themselves. For our purposes here though, we’ll consider what factors a judge will look at in deciding on whether to award spousal maintenance and if so, for how much. The reason is that knowing what may or may not be done in court can put a spouse and their attorney in a better position to negotiate favorable terms privately.
Please note that spousal maintenance and child support are not the same thing. Parents are obligated to support their children. The financial terms of this obligation are set up separately. Spousal maintenance is directed, as the term indicates, to the spouse themselves.
What Factors Impact Court-Ordered Spousal Maintenance?
The professional dynamic that exists between a couple is always different, and those differences can even be greater when the responsibilities of child-raising are involved. Consider this scenario….
The spouses married shortly after college. One was in business, the other an architect. Both were poised for successful careers in fields where they would be well-compensated. They also wanted a family, and it was determined that the architect would scale back their work and spend more time at home after kids started coming. It was also determined that the spouse in business would go for the MBA.
Over the next 15 years, they had three children. The spouse working full-time did indeed get their MBA and turned it into a lucrative job. The other spouse continued to do freelance architectural design. It was fulfilling, but a sidebar to what their main job had become–making sure the kids got to school, did their homework, and made it to all their extracurricular activities.
In a divorce settlement, the spouse who mostly was at home will have two strong arguments on their behalf for maintenance.
First off, Texas courts will see the couple as a single entity, with the tasks of earning income and raising children all lumped together. The person who did the latter should not be penalized for taking on that role. A family court will seek to make this spouse financially whole, to the greatest degree possible.
Furthermore, the spouse with the higher income is in this position because marital property–income belonging to both spouses–was invested in their education, with the MBA program.
Let’s start with that point first because it’s the most straightforward–the architect spouse will be able to get some type of compensation for their investment in the MBA. What that compensation will be has its own set of factors to consider, from the costs of the education itself to how much additional income the business spouse earned.
That still leaves the question of making the architect spouse whole for their own career sacrifices.
The higher income earning spouse, seeking to lower their payment amount, might counter by pointing out that the soon-to-be ex will resume their career as an architect on a full-time basis. That spouse always did keep at least one foot in the water these last 15 years, so all professional certifications are up to date. They have connections at the firms they’ve freelanced with. Now they can return to work full-time and make more than enough money on their own.
All these factors will be considered. The judge may consider exactly what the immediate job prospects are for the architect. Simply because you freelance for a company doesn’t mean full-time work will automatically be available. Nor does it mean the person would make the same salary they might have if this role had been started 15 years earlier. Expert witness testimony about the job market and salary ranges might be summoned by whichever side believes it will benefit their case.
A Different Angle
Now let’s give this scenario a different twist. The architect spouse found it impractical to maintain even a freelance career while juggling the responsibilities of raising a family. They still enjoyed having a job but settled for part-time work teaching night classes in design at the local community college.
In this situation, the architect spouse does not have the connections and up-to-date certifications they did in our freelance employment scenario. Getting up to speed after a divorce is going to be considerably more challenging.
The higher-income spouse counters by pointing out that the architect spouse can still get back on their feet with some persistence, which they (the higher-earning spouse) know they have in spades.
A court might steer a middle ground in a situation like this and order temporary maintenance be paid for a period of time that will allow the architect spouse to do everything necessary to resume their career. How much maintenance will be paid and for how long? This can again depend on expert witness testimony on the current job market for architects and the costs of ramping up a career 15 years after it was paused.
Misconduct Might Matter
The examples we’ve considered to this point have presumed there was no fault on the part of either spouse in ending the marriage–at least fault that was formally charged in court. That is not always the case.
A divorce can be filed on at-fault grounds, and those grounds include adultery and abuse. The spouse who commits adultery might see that work against them in any discussion of spousal maintenance.
That works both ways–our architect spouse who had an affair might see that work against an effort to secure court-ordered maintenance. The same goes for the business spouse, who went astray even after the career sacrifices made by the architect. Furthermore, if the infidelity involved any extravagant purchases made for the third person in this love triangle, that is going to work against the spouse that had the affair.
Spousal abuse is also going to be considered in any maintenance award. Abuse is not just physical, but emotional and verbal as well. If proven to the court, it can certainly have consequences that will ripple across the entire divorce settlement, from spousal maintenance to child custody and visitation.
How Long Does Court-Ordered Maintenance Last?
In most cases, spousal maintenance does not last forever. Courts consider the length of the marriage when making an award. Our example above presumed a 15-year marriage. The maximum length of time the architect spouse could receive maintenance payments would be for five years. If the court determines they can be up to speed in their career faster, then the length of time will be shortened.
If this were a 30-year marriage or longer, spousal maintenance could go on for up to 10 years. The only circumstances that can cause spousal maintenance to continue indefinitely is if the spouse with lower income is disabled, or responsible for caring for a disabled child–which would make ramping up a career virtually impossible.
There are a lot of issues to be considered in spousal maintenance and everything else that’s on the table in a divorce settlement. It’s the job of your attorney to make sure every factor that works in your favor is understood by the court. At Coker, Robb & Cannon, Family Lawyers, we have over 20 years of experience handling cases like yours. We’ll fight for you, and we’ll bring all that experience to bear on your behalf. Call us today at (940) 293-2313 or contact us online to set up an initial consultation.