Spousal Support and Abuse

Posted on Feb 6, 2019 by Katie Carter

Abuse is, for me, always one of the harder subjects to discuss. It’s not that it makes the law complicated, or really that it changes what a person might be entitled to receive — but maybe that’s part of the problem for me, too.

Abuse changes a person. After years and years of it, it slowly, subtly, completely changes a person. If you’ve suffered years and years of abuse at your husband’s hands, you probably feel like a shell of the person you once were. You’re brittle around the edges.

I find that abused women go one of two ways. They stay a bit of a shrinking violet, or, on the other side, they go crazy. They demand everything, and nothing is ever good enough. That’s probably true, too — nothing IS good enough. After years of feeling like less than a person, feeling like nothing is ever good enough, feeling like time was wasted — it’s hard to feel like any offer you might receive as part of a settlement in your divorce is really going to come close to representing compensation for the suffering you’ve endured.

I get it. I’ve been there. I wasn’t married to the guy, but I did date an emotional abuser for a couple years. I remember the feeling of going around behind the scenes to make sure everything would go perfectly so that my boyfriend wouldn’t be provoked. Of being angry at other people for doing things that I KNEW would set him off later, privately. I shed so many tears, wasted so much time, worrying about him when, deep down, I think I knew that nothing (and by nothing, I meant, mostly, myself) would ever be good enough, would ever satisfy him enough, would ever calm him and allow him to just…be happy.

I remember coming out of my funk, too, thinking, “Who WAS that girl, and why on earth did she tolerate all of that?” The answer for me, and I think probably for you, too, is a simple one. You loved him. Deeply, obviously. You tried to help. You got caught up. You thought, “Well, he doesn’t mean it, he’s just upset,” and then, eventually, his abuse became so deeply entrenched in the fabric of your relationship that you could remove yourself from it. I know how it happens. I’ve been there. And though I think my experience really does help me when it comes to dealing with my clients who have been in abusive relationships, too, my suffering really doesn’t come anywhere near to what someone who was married to someone for ten, twenty, or thirty years must experience. I don’t mean to suggest that it does — just to convey that I understand, and I’m sorry for what you’ve gone through.

No one — I’ll repeat that again — no one deserves to be treated that way. You deserve to be loved, and treated with kindness and respect.

But part of my difficulty in talking about this comes from the knowledge that, as far as the law goes, the abuse you suffered doesn’t matter all that much. Spousal support especially is a question of numbers. There’s nothing punitive about it.

What about pain and suffering?

Some areas of law — like personal injury — allow for a recovery based on your pain and suffering. Divorce doesn’t work that way. There’s no additional premium you receive for the suffering you may have experienced.

You will not receive more in spousal support, or even receive spousal support for longer, because your husband is an abuser.

How much spousal support will I receive?

Well, that all depends. Spousal support is, like I mentioned before, based on the numbers. He has to earn more money than you (actually, fairly substantially more than you), for starters. If not, there won’t be spousal support. You have to demonstrate a need (which is easy),and he has to demonstrate an ability to pay (not quite so easy).

So, there has to be a disparity in your incomes. If you’re both on smaller incomes, like in retirement, even if he may have drawn a larger salary before, it may be difficult to get spousal support awarded.

Beyond that, we also have to look at the statutory factors.¬† There are 13, and they’re pretty important. They describe most of the things that we, as attorneys, are looking at when it comes to an award of spousal support. Spousal support isn’t designed to, for example, equalize the incomes between the parties. If you take a look at the statute, you’ll see what attorneys and judges are looking at when it comes to awards of spousal support.

Wait — it says “the standard of living established during the marriage”. What does that mean?

Most women locate this phrase with laser beam focus almost immediately! In most cases, though, maintaining the standard of living established during the marriage is easier said than done. It’s a guideline, which means that the court will attempt to do it, but the court is also very, very practical. It’s often not possible to support someone in the same standard to which she has grown accustomed when a divorce means that the income that used to support one household will now support two. It’s a factor but, by itself, it doesn’t actually require that you are able to do all the same things that you used to be able to do. Almost without exception, your standard of living will decline.

How long will I receive spousal support?

Spousal support isn’t always permanent. In fact, these days, that happens less and less often. But it all depends on the length of your marriage.

Usually, for shorter term marriages, we see support for a term of years, up to about half the length of the marriage.

For long term marriages, permanent support is a possibility, but, like I said, I see that less often these days. Courts tend to expect women to go back to work post-divorce and earn what they’re capable of earning, even if it’s not all that much. It’s not a requirement, of course — no one can MAKE you work. But the court can, especially if there’s an employment expert involved, impute income to you. Imputation basically means that you can be made responsible for money you’re not earning, if the expert can help the other side establish that you COULD earn that money.

If you’re disabled or something and unable to work, that’s good evidence to refute this witness’s testimony. But that’s not something to really worry about today, just something to be aware of in the event that your case does go to court.

It’s hard to know whether you’ll receive support and, if so, how much. Though no guidelines are binding on our courts here in Hampton Roads, we do use a formula to get an idea of how much support might be. If you’d like to have a guideline calculation prepared in your case, it’s a good idea to set up a one-on-one consultation with one of our attorneys. Give our office a call at 757-425-5200 to set that up.

Though I understand how you’re feeling, and the difficulty associated with getting out of an abusive relationship, I also want to caution you that spousal support is not designed to be punitive. The court is not out to punish him for his behavior, but just to make it possible for you to support yourself post-divorce. The support you receive might not seem to be what you hoped it would be, and, though that can make reaching an agreement more difficult (it’s a heightened sense of the emotional stakes involved when there’s abuse), I urge you to listen to your attorney about what’s reasonable under the circumstances, and also to, if possible, work with a mental health provider to help you recover emotionally¬†from the strain of the relationship. The two together — attorney and therapist — can help you overcome the issues you’ve experienced, and work towards a healthier, happier future.