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Everything You Need to Know about Alimony in Texas

Divorced woman holding envelope with alimony

When a person files for divorce in Texas, the court must address numerous issues before it can grant the divorce and sign a final decree. All community property must be identified and divided between the soon-to be-former spouses. If the parties have minor children, a final decree of divorce must include provisions for child support, child custody, and visitation rights. In some cases, one spouse may seek support payments from the other spouse for themselves. This is commonly known as “alimony.” In Texas, it is officially known as “spousal maintenance.” Texas law makes it relatively difficult to obtain an order for alimony, and obligations to pay alimony are often limited in duration. Here is an overview of everything you need to know about alimony in Texas.

What Is Alimony?

The terms “alimony,” “spousal maintenance,” and “spousal support” refer to a legal obligation to provide financial support to a spouse after a divorce. The word “alimony” derives from the Latin alimōnia, which means “food, nourishment, nurture, upbringing.”

An alimony obligation may begin once the court has granted the divorce, or while the divorce case is still pending. A court will order one spouse, the “obligor,” to make regular payments to the other spouse, the “obligee.”

For more than a century, Texas divorce law did not allow courts to order alimony. Early divorce laws in Texas only allowed it while a divorce case was pending, and only in the specific situation of a wife lacking “sufficient income for her maintenance.” Spouses could agree to alimony payments, but courts viewed this as a contract. The Texas Legislature first added provisions for spousal maintenance after a divorce in 1995. While the state has amended this part of the Family Code several times in the twenty-five years since, spousal maintenance is still only available in rather narrow circumstances.

Who Can Get Alimony in Texas?

The concept of a husband paying support to a former spouse dates back thousands of years, with the first known law appearing in the Code of Hammurabi. Texas’ early alimony laws limited it to situations where a husband paid support to a wife for a limited period of time. Modern alimony laws do not specify gender, but rather focus primarily on the relative economic positions of both spouses.

Eligibility for spousal maintenance in a Texas divorce falls into two categories. The first is based on actions by the obligor. A court can order spousal maintenance if, during the two years prior to the divorce case, the obligor was convicted of a crime involving family violence against the obligee.

The second category is based on the obligee’s needs. A court can order spousal maintenance if the obligee can show any of the following:

  1. The obligee has “an incapacitating physical or mental disability” that prevents them from “earn[ing] sufficient income to provide for [their] minimum reasonable needs”;
  2. The obligee “lacks the ability” to make enough money for their “minimum reasonable needs,” and has been married to the obligor for at least a decade; or
  3. The obligee cannot meet their “minimum reasonable needs” because they have custody of a child born to the marriage who has a “a physical or mental disability” requiring “substantial care and personal supervision.”

Once a court determines that a spouse is eligible to receive alimony in Texas, it must consider certain other factors that may affect the amount an obligor must pay, and the duration of the obligation. The statute identifies eleven factors:

  1. Each spouse’s ability to support themselves independently;
  2. Each spouse’s education and work experience, and the amount of time and resources needed for the obligee to reach a point where they can support themselves;
  3. The length of the marriage;
  4. The obligee’s age, health, work history, and job skills;
  5. The effect of a spousal maintenance obligation on the ability to pay child support, if applicable;
  6. Damage to community property by either spouse;
  7. One spouse’s contribution to the other’s education, such as when one spouse works to support the other during college or graduate school;
  8. Separate property provided by either spouse at the start of the marriage;
  9. One spouse’s contribution to the marriage as homemaker;
  10. Misconduct by either spouse, such as adultery; and
  11. Any instances or history of family violence.

State law directs courts to presume that it should only award alimony when the obligee has “exercised diligence” with regard to earning enough on their own to support themselves, including obtaining the necessary education or training.

How Is the Amount of Alimony Determined?

The Texas Family Code does not provide guideline amounts for spousal maintenance like it does with child support, but it does establish a maximum amount that a court can order. The monthly amount of child support cannot exceed the lesser of $5,000 or twenty percent of the obligor’s “average monthly gross income.”

For the purposes of calculating alimony payments, “monthly gross income” includes:

  • Wages or salary;
  • Self-employment income;
  • Net rental income;
  • Interest, dividends, and royalties;
  • Annuity payments, unemployment benefits, retirement benefits, and other cash income.

Income withholding is available for payment of spousal maintenance, much like withholding for child support.

How Long Does an Order to Pay Alimony Last?

An order to pay spousal maintenance in Texas usually has a defined end point. The maximum duration of an order depends on how long the parties were married, and whether eligibility for alimony is based on financial need or domestic violence. As a general rule, courts are supposed to order alimony for “the shortest reasonable period” needed for the obligee to gain the ability to support themselves.

A court can order spousal maintenance for an indefinite period of time if the obligee has “an incapacitating physical or mental disability,” or if they care for a child with “a physical or mental disability,” as mentioned above. The duration of alimony in these types of situations is for as long as the spouse continues to meet the eligibility criteria.

In all other cases, a court cannot order alimony for longer than:

  • Five years, if the obligor was convicted of domestic violence and the parties were married for less than ten years;
  • Five years, if the parties were married for ten to twenty years;
  • Seven years, if they were married for twenty to thirty years; and
  • Ten years, if they were married for thirty years or longer.

An obligation to pay alimony automatically terminates, regardless of the above time limits, if either party dies, or if the obligee remarries. A court must order the termination of an alimony obligation if it finds that the obligee is permanently cohabitating with a romantic partner.

What Happens If Someone Ordered to Pay Alimony Does Not Do So?

Courts can enforce alimony orders by contempt. An obligee can file a motion to enforce with the court that entered the original order. The court can enter an order for the amount of alimony in arrears, which can be enforced like any debt.

Can an Alimony Order Be Changed?

An obligor can reduce the amount of their obligation by filing a motion to modify and showing “a material and substantial change in circumstances.” This includes the eleven factors mentioned above, as well as the circumstances of a child with a disability who formed the basis for the spousal maintenance award.

Stacey Valdez is a board-certified Houston divorce lawyer who represents people during profoundly difficult ordeals, such as divorce and child custody disputes. Our clients and their families are the top priority for our team at Stacey Valdez & Associates. We are committed to advocating for our clients’ rights and interests with tireless advocacy, dignity, and compassion. Please contact us online, or give us a call today at (713) 294-7072 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case. Your first meeting with us is free in most situations.