The legal process of divorce in Michigan is governed by a set of state family law statutes that detail every aspect of marital dissolution - from child custody, visitation and child support to division of property between parting spouses. Regardless of the presence of children in the marriage, a party may also want to consider whether the other spouse should be obligated to pay spousal support. Spousal support is paid by one ex-spouse to the other based on various considerations enumerated below. The primary objective of spousal support is to assess the income and needs of both parties to ensure that divorce will not impoverish either of them.
Michigan's divorce statute bases spousal support eligibility on a determination of whether the marital property awarded to either party is insufficient for the "suitable support and maintenance" of either the husband or wife and any children in his or her custodial care. If deemed insufficient, a Michigan family law court has discretion to award spousal support in a lump sum or distributed periodically. Periodic spousal support may be counted as income to the party receiving it and become a tax deduction for the payor of support.
How Does the Court Decide on the Amount of Spousal Support?
The Michigan Supreme Court has stated that the following factors can be considered by a court in determining the amount of spousal support to be awarded:
- Past relations and conduct of the parties
- The length of the spouses' marriage
- Either spouse's earning abilities or ability to work
- The source and amount of assets awarded to each party through marital property division, and the income-earning potential of those assets
- The obligor's ability to pay alimony
- The present situation of the parties
- The degree of difference in the spouses' incomes
- The prior standard of living of the parties
- The alimony recipient's responsibility for the support of others, including adult children with special needs
- Either party's age, health or needs
- General principles of fairness, referred to in the legal context as "equity"
Each award of spousal support must be based on the unique facts presented by the couple's circumstances. However, when considering the factors above, a family court judge can impute additional income based on a finding that a spouse has voluntarily reduced his or her income to avoid spousal support obligations. In other words, a spousal support award can be based on the court's assessment of how much a person could and should be making.
Duration and Modification of Support Payments to an Ex-Spouse
Awards of spousal support are seldom permanent, and a judge has discretion to authorize payments for a specific temporary period. The court may also reserve final determination of the issue for a future date to determine if a spousal support recipient can become self-sufficient. In such a case, spousal support can be modified by the court without a formal showing of a change in circumstances.
A final order granting alimony can only be modified based on evidence of a change of circumstances, which may include a reduction or increase in income affecting a payor's ability to pay. However, Michigan courts have also recognized that parties can structure alimony agreements that are not subject to modification, similar to prenuptial agreements. Furthermore, a spousal support award cannot be granted as part of the process of modifying a property settlement agreement.
The ex-spouse who asks the court to modify an alimony award has the burden of establishing a basis for modification, and the court can retroactively reduce or increase the obligation only back to the date of filing a motion for modification. Examples of changes that justify modification include increased or decreased income of the paying party, as well as illness of the recipient. However, modification of lump-sum spousal support (which is considered a part of property division) orders is not allowed absent a showing of fraud.
Under Michigan law, alimony can be terminated based solely on the fact of remarriage of the party who receives payments. Evidence of cohabitation without further facts underscoring a change in circumstances does not justify termination of support to an ex-spouse.
Assembling a Clear Cut Case Regarding an Award of Spousal Support
At every stage of the divorce process, clear advice rooted in a Michigan divorce lawyer's practical experience is a crucial asset. This is all the more true when issues such as alimony are contested and a spouse must present compelling proof of the couple's past and future financial prospects. An attorney who understands every last item in Michigan's family law code, as well as the cases that interpret it, can protect a client's interests and avoid unacceptable setbacks and pitfalls in the divorce process.