Legal Corner: Alimony

Well-heeled publisher Peter Brant has to pay his soon-to-be ex-wife, former Victoria’s Secret model Stephanie Seymour, $270,000 a month in alimony and child support. Michael Jordan reportedly gave his wife $168 million when they ended their 18-year marriage. Material girl Madonna settled $92 million on ex Guy Ritchie after eight years of marriage.

    “We don’t see numbers like that in Missouri, even in divorces involving the wealthy,” says Margo Green of Green, Cordonnier & House, a family law practice. “This is an exceptionally conservative state when it comes to alimony, or maintenance, to use the legal term. It’s difficult to get more than $5,000 a month in St. Louis courts, even if the spouse is bringing in $1 million a year. Income doesn’t seem to affect the judge’s ruling here, the way it does in California, New York or even Illinois. And palimony, maintenance paid to domestic partners who split up, isn’t recognized by Missouri courts at all.”

    That doesn’t mean palimony is illegal here, Green adds. “Only seven states have explicitly rejected palimony, and Missouri isn’t one of them,” she says. “But everyone knows that judges here simply don’t acknowledge it. In fact, even if domestic partners eventually marry, the courts here don’t recognize the total amount of years they’ve spent together when it comes to awarding maintenance.” Green hopes to play a role in changing that. “I’m currently handling a case in which my argument will be, if you lived with someone for 15 years and were married for only five of them, it’s unfair to disregard those 10 years when the couple divorces.”

    Susan Hais of Hais, Hais, Goldberger & Coyne says there is a remedy in general contract law that lets domestic partners divide property. “They can deal with any property they may have acquired jointly by filing a partition suit,” she explains. “The judge will attempt to divide the property equitably.”

    Hais agrees that Missouri is conservative when it comes to awarding maintenance. “It’s harder to get than it used to be, even in a long-term marriage with a partner who’s a high-income earner,” she says. “Societal attitudes have really shifted. The perception is that economic opportunities for women have changed dramatically. Women now have a history of success in the workplace. Theoretically, anyone can now go out, get a job and become self-sufficient.”

    Many factors influence the amount of maintenance. “Things taken into consideration include the length of the marriage and standard of living set during the marriage; the age, health, obligations, assets and relative income of the parties; and their education, job histories and future financial prospects,” Hais says. What if your spouse is caught in the hot-tub with the nanny? “Conduct should be a relevant factor, even though Missouri is a modified no-fault state,” she says. (Missouri’s modified no-fault divorce law holds that if one spouse objects to the divorce, a court must hold a hearing and make a finding.) “But some judges don’t take it into consideration, which I think is outrageous. It’s still part of the statute, so how can you ignore it? If your behavior causes your marriage to fail, it definitely should be taken into consideration. But it’s up to the discretion of each judge—and to do the best possible job for your client, you have to understand the judge’s attitude toward such matters and understand the process.”

    Duration of maintenance is also an issue. “A lot of people don’t realize that a spouse can get maintenance indefinitely,” says Jeff Schechter of The Schechter Law Firm. “If a couple settles outside of court, you can enter an order for non-modifiable maintenance for a set term of years. If your case is tried by a judge, you’ll almost always get modifiable maintenance, which means you can change the amount you’re receiving or paying if you can prove a substantial change in financial circumstances. But either way, a judge isn’t allowed to end maintenance. Unless the couple agrees otherwise, it ends only when the recipient marries again or when either partner dies.”  

    Alimony, along with child custody, is considered one of the greatest sources of litigation in family law cases, and 80 percent of divorce cases involve a request for modification of maintenance. “We’re seeing a steep increase in motions to modify these days,” Schechter says. “A great many people not only have lost their jobs but can’t find new employment, so they either want more maintenance or can’t afford to pay it. What goes on in the economy definitely affects what goes on in the courthouse.”