Among the new laws taking effect this month is House Bill 901, containing changes to the Texas spousal maintenance law. There are additional eligibility conditions in the additions to the current spousal support section of the family code. The new law also includes updated maximum amounts and duration. Further changes clarify the legislative intention and order when certain conditions are present, for example, when the spousal maintenance recipient is also the primary care giver for a disabled child. H.B. 901 streamlines the process of reviewing and calculating maintenance eligibility, amount and duration, adding more certainty in Texas divorce cases.
Spousal Maintenance Eligibility[i]
To qualify for spousal maintenance, the court must make the finding that the maintenance-seeking spouse cannot provide for their minimal reasonable needs because they lack the sufficient property (money/income), and one of the following conditions must be present:
(1) While the divorce is pending or within two years before filing, there was a proven offense of family violence against the seeking spouse;
(2) The seeking spouse cannot earn sufficient income due to incapacitating physical or mental disability, was married more than 10 years and generally lacks ability to earn sufficient income, or is the custodian of a child of the marriage requiring supervision due to mental or physical ability, which impedes the ability of that spouse to earn income.
Among the list of factors the court reviews in determining the nature, amount, duration and manner of spousal maintenance payments now includes some additional occurrences such as an expanded clarification of marital misconduct to include adultery and cruel treatment by either spouse. A history or pattern of family violence is also a factor in maintenance determinations.
Maximum Amount of Spousal Maintenance[ii]
The new law increased the maximum amount of spousal maintenance the court may award to being a monthly amount not greater than either $5,000 per month or 20 percent of the paying spouse’s average monthly gross income. The previous maximum amount was $2,500. The new law also identifies exactly what money is calculated in determining gross income.
Duration of Spousal Maintenance Order[iii]
Likely the biggest change to the spousal maintenance law is the extended duration of maintenance, with options for the court to grant maintenance not only for a maximum period of three years, but for five, seven or 10 years, depending on the length of the marriage. The law still follows the general rule that maintenance should be limited to the shortest reasonable period of time that it may take for the spouse seeking maintenance to earn sufficient income and get necessary skills training, if reasonable.
Clarification: Contempt of Court for Failure to Pay[iv]
The new law adds clarification to the provisions for enforcing the court’s maintenance order or an agreement by contempt. While the court may use a finding of contempt of court to enforce a maintenance order against the maintenance obligor, the court may not enforce any provision of an agreed order for maintenance that extends maintenance further beyond the court’s options stated in the Family Code. In addition to provisions covering failures to pay, the new law also adds a section to control the matter of overpayments and repayment procedures[v].
Modification of Spousal Maintenance
Leslie Barrows, family law attorney and founder of The Barrows Firm, offers her insight when asked how she is prepared to assist spouses with maintenance orders, who have concerns that the change in the law might affect them, “If spousal maintenance was awarded in the Final Decree of Divorce, I would take a few minutes and see if you are eligible for a modification of your current spousal support order. You may even be eligible to collect past due payments and possibly terminate your spousal support order depending on the current living situation of your former spouse.”
The Barrows Firm in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, also with offices in Arlington and Trophy Club, represents families with legal issues in the area of divorce and family law, as well as juvenile, criminal, probate law and estate planning. You may make an appointment to meet with an attorney in the Fort Worth or Trophy Club office by calling (817) 481-1583 or by contacting The Barrows Firm through the website. The Barrows Firm is also active on social media, on Twitter and Facebook.
[i] Texas Family Code Sections 8.051 and 8.052.
[ii] Texas Family Code Section 8.055
[iii] Texas Family Code Section 8.054
[iv] Texas Family Code Section 8.059
[v] Texas Family Code Section 8.0591