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How Do Court-Ordered and Contractual Alimony Differ?

Spousal support in Texas may be ordered by the court as part of a divorce proceeding or contractually agreed upon between the parties. The laws governing court-ordered and contractual alimony differ in several key respects. It is important to be aware of these differences before you seek or agree to either kind of alimony.

Limits on Court-Ordered Alimony

Court-ordered spousal support is not granted as a matter of right. Indeed, by law a Texas judge generally starts with the presumption that support is not necessary. The spouse seeking support therefore has the burden of proof. In other words, the spouse must demonstrate to the court that he or she will “lack sufficient property” following the divorce to provide for their “minimum reasonable needs.” Keep in mind this only refers to the spouse’s needs; the needs and support obligations with respect to any children is a separate matter.

In any event, even if a judge agrees that alimony is justified, the court may not order a spouse to pay more than $5,000 per month or 20 percent of his or her “average monthly gross income” in support, whichever is less. And there are time limits on court-order spousal support. The exact limit is based on how long the parties were married.

No Limits on Contractual Alimony

In contrast to the limits applicable to court-ordered support, there are no restrictions on the amount or duration of contractual alimony. The spouses are free to agree to whatever terms suit them. But as with any contract, one spouse may sue the other for failing to perform their end of the bargain.

Consider this recent case from Dallas. A husband and wife divorced in 2003. The husband agreed to pay contractual alimony of $9,000 per month to the wife for a period of 10 years. To put this in perspective, the court could not have ordered spousal support of more than $5,000 per month for 7 years, based on the fact the parties were married between 20 and 30 years.

Twelve years after the divorce became final, the wife sued the husband, claiming he still owed her over $834,000 in unpaid alimony and legal fees. The husband claimed the contractual alimony was “unenforceable” under Texas law. Specifically, he alleged the alimony violated the duration and amount limits set forth in the Texas Family Code. But as the appeals court explained, those limits “apply only to ‘court ordered’ alimony.” So he was on the hook for the $834,000.

Need Help With Spousal Support?

Before seeking or agreeing to any kind of spousal support, it is important to have a clear understanding of your family’s financial situation. An experienced Galveston divorce attorney can help. Contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today if you need assistance with a child support or spousal support matter.