How does my increased income affect my spousal support?

Posted on Mar 10, 2021 by Katie Carter


Last week, I wrote a two part article series about how going back to work for a stay at home mom affects child support in both a primary physical custodial arrangement and a shared physical custodial arrangement.

It was, in large part, a response to a comment that someone I saw posted on Facebook about how his baby mama’s refusal to go back to work meant that she was relying on him for support. I see hate spewed like this all the time, of course, in my line of work.

The reality is that child support is designed to support the needs of the child, not the needs of the mother. In not going back to work, the person whose bottom line she hurts the most is her own, not her ex’s.

It’s not always a question of bottom lines. For some moms, the decision to stay at home is an important one. Though it ultimately impacts the amount of income she has on hand each month, it may be a sacrifice that, all things considered, she is able and willing to make.

As I ran the guidelines, though, I started to see a trend: a mom going back to work didn’t affect her child support very much. In fact, for a number of reasons (which I outlined in that article and which I won’t go in to any real detail about here, because it’s not the point of this article) her child support could ultimately increase, especially if she and her child’s father would have work related childcare expenses as a result of her return to the workforce.

For a lot of women, when they come into my office, one of the first and biggest concerns they have is whether they’ll be able to afford to live on their own. In cases where there are children involved, we have to look at child support. Though child support is money for the support of the child, that can be money that a mom uses to help pay rent on an apartment or a mortgage on a home to live in. It can be money that pays the utilities or covers the groceries – all things that both she and the children need to survive post-divorce.

But, in many cases, spousal support is also part of that equation. It’s not a consideration in a case where mom and dad were never married, or where the income doesn’t warrant an award of support. There’s a lot that goes into whether support is awarded at all, let alone how much, and for what period of time – a lot of that goes beyond the scope of this article (which is just designed to help you understand how amounts are calculated, and how much going back to work will ultimately impact the support that you receive), but you can learn a lot more about how spousal support is calculated by checking out this article. (It’s a three part article, and I included a link just to the last one – but in the first paragraph, you’ll see a link to the prior two. That way, you can read all three in their entirety, which should help you answer all the questions about support.)

I always get a lot of questions about whether to go back to work. A lot of that is compounded either by a desire to be as independent as possible, or, on the other hand, to receive the maximum benefit in terms of an award of spousal support. There’s really no right or wrong, except in making a decision without sufficient information (which is right) and making a decision without information or based on your own assumptions (which is wrong).

Regardless of whether you decide to return to work (or increase from part time to full time, or whatever), you should do so in full knowledge of what that will or won’t do to your award of spousal support.

A couple of things to keep in mind when it comes to spousal support:

1. The law isn’t overly generous. If you are entitled to receive support, it is because of your contribution to the marriage. It is NOT because you’re mooching off of him, because you’re not independent, or because you’re taking him to the cleaners. Hold your head high, and do not let him (or anyone else) make you feel bad about it.

2. Spousal support is calculated by a formula, but the formula is only binding on the courts pendente lite. Permanent spousal support is not necessarily bound by the formula – though I do still think the formula is a good starting place for negotiations, and that the court would still be heavily influenced by the formula.

3. If you’ve committed adultery, that’s a bar to spousal support – unless you can prove manifest injustice. (Spoiler alert: that’s a high bar, but I’ve seen it happen. Example: a case where there was significant economic disparity between the two parties, a nearly 20 year marriage, and recognition of wife’s having raised the husband’s 5 children.)

4. Spousal support is income to you, and will also impact your child support. It’s not taxable income, though, so you won’t have to pay taxes on the amount you receive.

But, now, to the meat and potatoes of this article. How does going back to work impact spousal support? Let’s look at some numbers.
For the sake of continuity, I’m going to use the same numbers I used in the articles I generated about child support last week. Let’s look at a husband who earns $100,000, and a wife who earns $0. In this case, the guideline calculation gives me $2,250 per month in spousal support.

But what happens if wife goes back to work? If she goes back to work and starts earning $20k annually, that drops spousal support to $1416 per month. Working would earn her $1667 (admittedly, this is before taxes), which, combined with her spousal support award, would give her $3,082 per month. That’s $832 per month more than she’d have had if she continued to stay at home. There’s also the added benefit – in many cases – of eligibility to healthcare and other benefits as well.

Let’s say, instead, she gets a job earning $40k annually. That takes spousal support down, again, to $583 under the guideline. Working would earn her $3,333 per month (again, before taxes), which, combined with her spousal support award, would give her $3,916 per month. That’s $1,666 more than she’d have if she continued to stay at home.

At $50,000 annually, spousal support drops to just $167 per month. So, at that amount, what she’d have to live off of would be the $4,166 she earns each month, plus $167, for a total of $4,333 per month. At $60,000 annually, spousal support phases out entirely, and she’d just have the benefit of the $5,000 per month (less taxes) she earns through her employment.

As you can see, the money you earn doesn’t reduce your spousal support dollar for dollar, but it does decrease. Unlike with child support, there’s no way that your going back to work would result in his paying MORE spousal support – but you do see that, by earning money separately from the amount you receive in spousal support, you wind up with more money to live off of per month.
These calculations are what they are for a reason. They’re not designed to de-incentivize a return to the workforce for someone who is willing and/or able to do it.

Of course, these numbers don’t necessarily reflect what each individual is able or willing to earn, whether because of age, disability, education or training, and experience. There are a lot of limiting factors here, and I’m not saying that I think it’s reasonable to expect you to jump back in and earn $60k a year. Maybe you can – and that’s so awesome! But it’s entirely possible that you can’t.

Spousal support cases are nuanced and complicated, which is why I referenced the other articles, and also made those four important points about spousal support awards. There’s a lot to unpack. In recent cases, I’ve also seen employment/vocational experts used, too, who go to court to argue about whether a person can go back to work and, if so, how much he or she could reasonably expect to earn.

If you’re wondering about an award of spousal support in your case and trying to weigh your options, give us a call. I like that you’re already thinking strategically about your choices, and trying to make them with all of the information available to you. At the end of the day, it’s a question of your goals and how to achieve them. Working with a lawyer who understands those goals can go a long way towards helping you reach them. Living on your own and achieving financial independence is important, and you should have all the help you can. For more information, or to schedule a consultation, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.