Spousal Maintenance Obligation Reduced by New York Appellate Court, Based on Finding that Obligor Would Be Unable to Afford It


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New York state law allows courts to award spousal maintenance, also known as “spousal support,” “alimony,” or simply “maintenance,” to a spouse in a divorce proceeding. Maintenance orders vary widely in duration and amount, depending on the circumstances of the parties. Calculating the amount of maintenance payments has been the subject of much controversy, resulting in reforms by the New York State Legislature in the summer of 2015. A New York appellate court addressed a common ground for disputing a maintenance order, which was that the amount of the order “is excessive and should be reduced,” in its March 2016 ruling in Stuart v. Stuart.

Two types of maintenance are available in New York divorce cases. Temporary maintenance must be paid while the divorce case is pending, but it terminates once the court grants the divorce. Post-divorce maintenance, as the name suggests, is payable after the parties are divorced. The duration may be for a defined period of time, as agreed by the parties or ordered by the court. Otherwise, it could be payable until either spouse dies or the recipient spouse remarries.

New York has modified its provisions for calculating maintenance twice in the past six years. In 2010, the Legislature passed a bill applying a formula to temporary maintenance calculations, but it left a less structured system in place for calculating post-divorce maintenance. These provisions reportedly resulted in some situations that were not only unjust but also unrealistic, with people being ordered to pay maintenance amounts greater than their actual income. A bill passed by the Legislature in June 2015, and signed by the Governor in September, applies a formula to post-divorce maintenance calculations. The rather complicated series of formulas is codified in § 236(B)(6) of the New York Domestic Relations Law (DRL).

The appellate court in Stuart does not say for certain, but the trial court presumably applied the post-divorce maintenance law in effect before the 2015 reforms. It ordered the husband to pay maintenance to the wife in the amount of $1,116 per month for a period of seven-and-a-half years. In his appeal, the 66-year-old husband stated that he lives on a fixed income consisting of Social Security and pension benefits, totaling less than $2,000 per month. After maintenance and child support payments, according to the court, he has just over $250 each month to pay all of his living expenses.

The court stated that the husband “should be able to find employment to supplement his income,” noting that he “voluntarily retired” from a job that paid about $46,000 per year. It also found, however, that it was “unlikely that he will be able to earn enough” to make the ordered payments. The court therefore ruled that the maintenance amount was excessive under § 236(B)(6) of the DRL. It reduced the monthly amount to $850, which only increases the husband’s net monthly income to about $516. The court explained this amount as a fair balance between “[the wife’s] needs and [the husband’s] ability to pay.” It did not modify the duration of the maintenance obligation.

Ingrid Gherman has practiced divorce law in the greater New York City area for the past 30 years, helping her clients through a difficult ordeal, in which they must often confront complicated financial questions like spousal maintenance, child support, and property distribution. Contact us today online or at (212) 941-0767 to schedule a confidential consultation with an experienced and skilled family law advocate.

More Blog Posts:

Brooklyn Court Rules on Divorce with One Spouse in Prison for Assaulting the Other, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, March 28, 2016

Termination of Spousal Maintenance in a New York Divorce, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, March 21, 2016

VA Benefits and Divorce in New York: What You Should Know, New York Divorce Attorney Blog, July 1, 2015


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