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The "S" Word (Spousal Support)

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

I remember the early days of my divorce when lawyers were barraging me with documents to sign, affidavits to file, and a bunch of other stuff I didn’t understand because I don’t have a law degree. It all felt so scary. I would spend my nights sobbing on the kitchen floor and my days pretending for my kids that everything was going to be fine. And in the middle of this dumpster fire, I was expected to make decisions that felt like they would permanently alter the course of my life.

May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears. - Nelson Mandela

The most anxiety-inducing decisions were around finances—especially support payments. My salary was not huge as I had spent the previous decade working part-time or not at all to—you guessed it—stay home and take care of the kids. While I didn’t (and still don’t) regret that decision, I felt like I was in a very precarious financial position, especially given the high legal bills I was being saddled with.

Spousal support is separate from child support and, unlike child support (which is a fairly straightforward calculation), takes into consideration a lot of factors including: the length of your marriage, whether the spouse paying support is also paying child support, the difference in your salaries, how long support payments will be paid and the age of the recipient. While the guidelines for determining child support are law, this is not the case for determining spousal support. Calculating spousal payments is very complex and should always be done with the help of a legal professional.

If you are the recipient of the payments, you can negotiate to receive the payments on an agreed-upon schedule, in a lump sum, by transferring assets equivalent to the amount or even waiving it entirely.

So many choices! How can you know which is the right one?!

Here’s one real-life example from the unhitch community to consider: Tracy* was in the middle of a particularly nasty divorce and her ex-husband insisted on selling the family home right away, even though neither of them had anywhere else to live—and their three kids had lived in that house their entire lives. When her lawyer suggested taking the house in lieu of spousal payments, the idea was really attractive to her. At the time, nothing seemed certain in her life and it would be a relief knowing that she wouldn’t be looking for a place to live in the midst of a court battle, and that at least one item would be ticked off the long legal list.

While Tracy was debating which option was best for her, her lawyer pointed out that even though the current equity in the house may not equal as much as the spousal payments she would receive over time, a lot of things could happen between then and the 11 years when payments would end: something could happen that would result in her ex-husband’s earnings diminishing, which would lower the payment amounts, or she could meet someone and move in together which would nullify support payments entirely (after three years of cohabitation or a new marriage).

Ultimately, she decided that a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush and agreed to keeping the house in lieu of spousal support. Tracy still feels it was the right decision for her at that time, even though she could have received more if she decided to go with regular payments.

The takeaway we can offer from our experiences is that although all these financial choices seem urgent and impossible at what is likely the most difficult time of your life, it is important to take the time to weigh all your options and make sure you understand the implications of each before signing on the dotted line.

We relied on professional legal advice to help us weigh our decisions, in addition to many of the resources listed below. If you are similarly looking for some insight and guidance, consider attending one of our upcoming events and a chance to ask your own questions to a professional.

More resources for spousal support and financial decision-making

Upcoming unhitch events

We offer affordable access to the experts on family law, financial health, real estate, health and wellbeing and more through our Live Q&A Events. Browse and register for our upcoming events—these one-hour virtual gatherings are an ideal way to get a friendly overview of separation and divorce from professionals in the field. Members get a discount on all events and the opportunity to submit questions ahead of time to our speakers.

Other resources

General information, including support calculators and legal considerations, for all family law matters include spousal and child support.

Financial wisdom, money smarts, divorce and separation advice from author and financial expert Gail Vaz-Oxlade.

*Note: Some of the names and identifying details have been changed or left out of this post to protect the privacy of women who share their stories here.

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