By: Rudman Winchell Attorney Anthony A. Trask
Some time ago I wrote about the Maine spousal support statute, offering my analysis of the basics of the law and explaining how difficult it is to predict whether a divorcing spouse will be required to pay the other spousal support, also known as alimony, and if so, how much and for how long.1
During the last session, the Maine Legislature made a couple of changes to the spousal support statute2 that made things even more unpredictable. The amendments to the law took effect in October 2013 and will certainly influence all future divorces in which spousal support is an issue. What is more disconcerting, however, is that the modified law can also have an impact on divorces that have already been finalized. There are essentially two components of the spousal support statute that have changed. Previously, if both parties agreed that the spousal support provision should be set in stone in terms of the amount and the duration – or the court made such a determination – the divorce judgment could indicate that the provision could not be modified in the future, regardless of any change in circumstances. If your divorce judgment includes such a provision and it was issued prior to October 1, 2013, that provision remains in place (although that does not mean the court cannot terminate spousal support early under certain circumstances, as seen below). For divorces finalized after October 1, 2013, if there is a spousal support award the court will always maintain the ability to modify the award “if it appears that justice requires” some modification. Exactly what this means is uncertain and it is likely the courts will gradually develop criteria that will determine when some modification is merited. For now, there is a great deal of uncertainty.
The second change relates to early termination of spousal support. Spousal support orders typically include language indicating that the obligation ceases if the party receiving support gets remarried. Sometimes parties negotiate provisions indicating support will also terminate upon the support recipient’s “cohabitation” with someone else. The intent of these provisions is to prevent the recipient of support from simply living with a new domestic partner, but not remarrying, in order to continue to receive spousal support. There was a general aversion for these provisions because unlike remarriage, which ensures a committed relationship with its own legal implications, simply living together, at least under Maine law, establishes no legal obligation for one party to support the other, regardless of how long the relationship lasts or the disparity in income. (This type of support is often referred to as “palimony” and is recognized in some states but Maine is not among them).
As of October 1, 2013, courts in Maine now have the authority to terminate spousal support, when “justice requires,” even if the divorce judgment specifically states that spousal support cannot be modified in the future. Under the revised law, the court has the authority to terminate spousal support if the recipient of support has “entered into a mutually supportive relationship that is the functional equivalent of marriage” and this relationship has “existed for at least 12 months of a period of 18 consecutive months.”3
If you read this provision and you are not certain what it means or if it might apply to your situation, you are not alone. The language is riddled with ambiguity. For one thing, there is no definition of the functional equivalent of marriage. In this era of gender neutral marriage laws, must there be a romantic component to the relationship? If not, any two individuals residing together and sharing expenses could be deemed the functional equivalent of marriage.
Unless future legislation is adopted to clarify or otherwise amend this language it is going to be necessary for a few test cases to be appealed so that the Maine Supreme Court can play its role of “interpreting” the law and explain what this revised law actually means. In the interim, any recipient of spousal support who enters into a “mutually supportive relationship” that lasts over a year risks having his or her spousal support terminated, regardless of what is in the divorce judgment.
It appears the Legislature intended to provide courts authority to terminate spousal support when the recipient of support has moved on and established a committed relationship with someone else such that spousal support is no longer merited. However, the language of the revised statute clearly could apply to a much broader range of situations and this could lead to unintended consequences.
The full text of Maine’s spousal support statute, prior to the recent changes, is here: The specific language of the legislation that was recently passed by the Legislature and subsequently signed into law by the Governor can be located here.