Spousal Maintenance vs Child Support: the basics

It may come as a surprise to some that when a relationship ends, one party might still be compelled to make a lump sum or ongoing payments to support their former spouse.  Even if you do not have children with your former partner, you may still be required to pay a certain amount if the necessary requirements of “Spousal Maintenance” have been met. 

Spousal Maintenance is completely separate to child support, but the two are often misconstrued and taken to be one and the same.

In this article, we will discuss the differences between child support payments and spousal maintenance payments and briefly explain obligations in respect of these.

 

What is Spousal Maintenance?

Spousal Maintenance is essentially financial support that is paid by one former partner to the other partner of a marriage or de facto relationship that has broken down in circumstances where the other party is unable to adequately support themselves.  It is money which is to be used by the recipient to assist in payment of their reasonable living expenses.

You might be asking yourself, why would does financial support need to be provided to a former partner if there is no longer a relationship?  In short, the law in Australia states that a person may have a responsibility to financially assist their former spouse or de facto partner if that person cannot meet their own living expenses.  The duty to support and maintain each other works both ways, and this obligation may continue even after separation.

To be successful in an application for Spousal Maintenance, there are essentially two limbs that must be satisfied.  Firstly, the applicant must have a need.  Secondly, the respondent must have capacity to pay spousal maintenance.  There are a range of factors which the Court consider when a party seeks such orders, such as the age of the parties, care of children and the parties’ income and financial resources, to name a few.
 

Child Support

Child Support, on the other hand, refers to the financial support by a parent specifically for their child/ren.  A private arrangement for the payment of child support can be negotiated between the parties and recorded in a Binding Child Support Agreement or a Limited Child Support Agreement.  For the former, both parties need independent legal advice.  Such agreements can cover the payment of periodic child support (a regular amount for example) or non-periodic amounts.  Non-periodic amounts can include payments towards costs such as education, medical and extra-curricular costs.  Lump sum payments are also possible.

Alternatively, or in conjunction with the above, Child Support may be assessed at a particular rate by the Department of Human Services (Child Support Agency).  Child Support matters are managed by Services Australia which is the entity that administers the Australian Child Support Scheme. The Family Court or Federal Circuit Court of Australia does not generally deal with Child Support matters, although it may be possible to apply to the Federal Circuit Court of Australia for a departure from a child support assessment carried out by the Child Support Agency in certain circumstances.
 

Time limitation for Spousal Maintenance

It is important to note that there is a time limitation for a party to make a claim for Spousal Maintenance against the other party.  This date is 12 months from the date that a divorce order takes effect if you were married, and 24 months from the breakdown of your relationship if you were a de facto spouse.

Interestingly, the Court still has power to grant permission (“leave”)  to a party who is making an application for spousal maintenance (married) or maintenance (de facto) even if that party is out of time.  For this, the party making the application will need to demonstrate hardship.

What this means in practical terms, is that in some circumstances, it could be possible to make an application for Spousal Maintenance even after the limitation period has elapsed and/or after property settlement has been finalised.
 

Seek legal advice

There is no one particular way to approach matters involving Spousal Maintenance and Child Support, as it will really depend on the individual circumstances of every case.  This is why it is always best to seek legal advice about your situation, obligations and entitlements, as well as tailoring the best options to your needs and the needs of your family.

Sometimes people do not realise that they may be entitled to receive payments from their former partner by way of spousal maintenance.  Likewise, some people might fail to recognise the risk of there being a potential Spousal Maintenance application made against them in the future even after they finalise a property settlement.  There are ways to limit potential future liability in this regard, such as entering into a Binding Financial Agreement which effectively extinguishes spousal maintenance rights for one or both parties.

Contact us today and make an appointment with Shannon Daykin, an Accredited Family Law Specialist, to discuss your circumstances and needs.  Shannon was recently named as one of Brisbane’s Leading Family & Divorce Lawyers (Recommended) and Leading Parenting & Children’s Matters Lawyers (Leading) 2021, Brisbane, in the prestigious Doyle’s Family Law Guide.  We offer a reduced fixed fee initial consultation, which can be conducted in person, by phone or by video conference.

We give you expert legal advice on the most appropriate and cost-effective course of action for you and your family.  Contact us on (07) 3852 5490 to make an appointment for a fixed fee initial consultation today.