Changes to Spousal Maintenance Laws – More Than Just Labels, It’s a Whole New World of Presumptions

The legislature enacted new spousal maintenance statutes that will take effect August 1, 2024. The first real change is that temporary or rehabilitative maintenance is now called “transitional,” and permanent maintenance is now called “indefinite.” These are more fitting labels, and it’s how I’ve explained the two types of maintenance to clients for a long time. But there is much more to know about the spousal maintenance statutory changes.

The most important change is to the duration of spousal maintenance. It will now be rebuttably presumed to be for a certain time based on the length of the marriage, defined as the period from the date of marriage to the date of commencement of the action. If the marriage is less than five years, it is rebuttably presumed that no maintenance should be awarded. If the marriage is 5 – 20 years, it is rebuttably presumed that transitional maintenance should be awarded with a duration of no longer than half the length of the marriage. And if the marriage is 20 years or more, it is rebuttably presumed that indefinite maintenance should be awarded. This effectively removes the prior presumption that permanent maintenance should be awarded if it is unclear whether temporary or permanent maintenance is appropriate. (Minn. Stat. §518.552, Subd. 3.) Now, that presumption only applies to marriages of 20+ years. And, it shifts the burden of proof from the obligor to the obligee.

One of the new considerations for determining the amount and duration of spousal maintenance is “the extent to which the standard of living was funded by debt.” There are many longer-term marriages that have a high standard of living that was achieved by carrying an exorbitant amount of credit card debt. Obviously, this is not sustainable even in a one-household family, let alone when trying to support two households. Another new consideration is “the need and ability of each spouse to prepare for retirement and the anticipated date of retirement.” Again, to maintain what the couple would have expected their retirement lifestyle to look like will require greater retirement savings. And, a much lower earning spouse should have the ability to continue to save in an equitable manner to the obligor.

There is also an important addition that deals specifically with the situation of retirement as a factor for modification. The court must consider whether the retirement is in good faith or an unjustifiable self-limitation of income, whether the party has attained the age to receive their full retirement benefit through Social Security, and whether a party reasonably and prudently managed their assets since the dissolution of marriage. There is a presumption that when a party has attained the age to receive full retirement benefits under Social Security, they will use both income and assets to meet their needs. And a party cannot be presumed to have retired in bad faith (or unjustifiably self-limited their income) if their retirement occurs on or after they attain the age to receive full Social Security benefits.

Finally, another smaller but important change for evaluating modifications is whether there has been a “substantial change in the federal or state tax laws that affect spousal maintenance.” This is likely a reflection of the changes made under former President Trump that altered spousal maintenance so that it is no longer taxable to the recipient or deductible to the payor. Should such a sweeping change occur again that causes an order to be unreasonable or unfair, a modification could address that.

All of this means that when it comes to establishing or modifying spousal maintenance, you can no longer rely on the “old” presumptions or even labels. Considering these new factors provides an idea of the direction in which the legislature and courts are headed, narrowing even more the spousal maintenance awards and increasing the grounds for modification. It will require more and more thinking outside the box to achieve support awards that are realistic and equitable for spouses and even children.