How do the New Zealand courts deal with spousal maintenance?
It is important to note that spousal maintenance in New Zealand (from one adult to support the other adult) is different to child support (for the children).
In New Zealand spousal maintenance is payable if, following separation, one party is unable to meet their reasonable needs. If that party can demonstrate that their inability to meet their reasonable needs arises because of one of the qualifying circumstances, then spousal maintenance may be payable by the other party.
The ‘qualifying circumstances’ are slightly different depending on whether the parties were married or in a de facto relationship but include things such as responsibility for care of children, standard of living during the relationship, earning capacity and the effect of the division of functions within the relationship. It is important to note that we have a ‘no fault’ system in New Zealand so it does not matter if one party behaved poorly in the course of the separation.
When considering an application for spousal maintenance, the court will look at the claiming party’s budget of their ‘reasonable needs’ together with the other party’s budget and what that person might reasonably be able to afford to pay.
In New Zealand, spousal maintenance is generally an interim measure and the recipient is obligated to take the necessary steps to support themselves within a reasonable period of time. The precise length of any necessary maintenance payment will largely depend on the circumstances of the parties involved. The obligation to pay maintenance in New Zealand ends when the receiving party enters into a new de facto relationship.
How does this differ from other countries?
Unsurprisingly, the law on this issue varies across boundaries. A few of the most noticeable differences arise in the USA and UK, including:
- The qualifying circumstances and amount of maintenance payable; and
- The length of time for which maintenance can be payable.
In the USA, laws on alimony (as it is known) vary significantly across states. In some states, alimony is only awarded in marriages or civil unions of 10 years or longer and domestic violence can be a valid ground to make a claim. In some states, the person who was ‘at fault’ for the end of the relationship may be relevant (i.e. if the party claiming alimony had an affair, that may be a factor in deciding whether they should receive payment).
There are sometimes limits placed on the amount of maintenance payable, such as the lesser of $5,000 per month, or 20% of the paying party’s income.
Other states (such as New York) do not impose the same strict guidelines on qualifying circumstances or amounts of maintenance, and allow judges to make decisions that they consider best in the specific circumstances of the parties.
Across the USA, ‘temporary alimony’ continues to be the most common type of award, with the length of payments sometimes based on the length of the relationship. It is worth noting though, that ‘permanent alimony’ (i.e. payment for life) does exist in some states and is awarded in circumstances which are considered appropriate.
In the UK, the qualifying circumstances for spousal maintenance and the way in which awards are calculated have similarities to New Zealand law. However, what is noticeably different, is the length of time which maintenance payments can continue for.
As is the case in the US, spousal maintenance can be paid for a fixed term (such as until the youngest child turns 18), or it can be payable for life (until the paying party dies). The latter are often coined ‘meal ticket for life’ orders and are widely reported on in the media. These awards appear to have become less common in the UK and the Courts have increasingly applied the ‘clean break’ principle which ends financial ties between separated parties at a point in time which is considered fair.
The 2015 UK case of Wright v Wright made headlines around the world after a Judge suggested that the ex-wife of a wealthy veterinarian should ‘get a job’ to help supplement the spousal maintenance she was receiving, now that the children were over 7 years of age.
Despite this, spousal maintenance in the UK is still considered one of the more generous across jurisdictions and ‘joint lives’ maintenance awards continue to be made. The question as to whether ‘joint lives’ orders are appropriate is hotly debated by lawyers and legal writers, with many calling for law reform in this area.
How does New Zealand measure up internationally?
Spousal maintenance in New Zealand is not as generous as some jurisdictions in terms of the length of time for which it is payable. The very broad and potentially lifelong obligations sometimes seen in the UK and USA, whilst not inconceivable under New Zealand Law, are extremely rare and would arguably be contrary to the spirit and intent of the Family Proceedings Act 1980, which governs spousal maintenance in New Zealand. There is an obligation on the receiving party to meet their own reasonable needs at some stage.
However, our law does ensure that the actual ‘reasonable needs’ of both the claiming party, and the paying party, are taken into consideration. Rather than applying limits to the amount of maintenance payable, each New Zealand case is decided based on the specific circumstances of the individuals involved.