Clean break or spousal maintenance after divorce or dissolution

When you divorce or dissolve your civil partnership in England, Wales or Northern Ireland, one of you might agree to pay the other either a lump sum or ongoing spousal maintenance payments. Couples and the courts generally prefer a ‘clean break’, but that isn’t always possible.

Understanding clean breaks

When you’re working out how to divide your property and assets, arranging a ‘clean break’ might make sense.

A clean break means ending the financial ties between you and your ex-partner (husband, wife or civil partner) as soon as reasonable after your divorce or dissolution.

Where there is a clean break, there will be no spousal maintenance payments.

The only way you can guarantee that your ex-partner doesn’t try to make financial claims against you in future is to get a court order.

The court order must set out the financial arrangements and state that there is to be a clean break.

Paying a lump sum to get a clean break

In some cases, there’s enough money to ‘buy out’ the financially weaker person’s maintenance claim.

This is done by calculating an amount of money that the receiving person can be given. They can then invest and receive an income from it, instead of getting maintenance payments.

This is a complicated area. So if you’re thinking about doing this, it’s important to get advice from a family law solicitor.

A lump sum payment doesn’t have to be paid in one go, although it often is. It can be paid in more than one instalment. For example, a part payment when the court order is made (or very soon afterwards), followed by other payments when the house is sold.

Any lump sums that are payable in the future potentially run the risk of having changes made to them. It’s important to specialist legal advice if you think this might affect you.

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In Northern Ireland, both you and your ex-partner need to agree to ‘buy out’ a maintenance claim.

In England and Wales, the court can impose a ‘buy out’ on you.

What is spousal maintenance?

This is a regular payment made by a former husband, wife or civil partner to their ex-partner.

It’s only paid where one partner can’t support themselves financially without it.

The amount you receive would depend on:

  • how much you need to live on
  • how much income you already have, and
  • how much you could potentially earn in the future.

When is spousal maintenance paid?

If the marriage or civil partnership is short – less than five years – it might not be paid at all, or only for a short period. This is called a ‘term order’.

But where a couple has been together for a long time, or where an ex-partner is unable to work, it can be paid for life. This is called a ‘joint lives’ basis. It means either until the person paying maintenance or the one receiving it dies.

But spousal maintenance on a joint lives basis is becoming more rare.

When does spousal maintenance stop?

It usually stops if:

  • the payment term ends
  • you or your ex-partner die, or
  • the person receiving spousal maintenance remarries or enters another civil partnership.

It doesn’t necessarily stop if they live with a new partner without marrying or entering a civil partnership. Although the person paying it could use this as a reason to apply to the courts to get the amount reduced.

Insuring spousal maintenance payments

If you get spousal maintenance, it’s worth considering insuring the payments. This means that you’ll continue to receive an income if your ex-partner dies.

To do this, either you or your ex-partner can take out a life insurance policy on their life.

It doesn’t need be expensive. And the policy can provide a lump sum or monthly payments if they were to die while you were still receiving spousal maintenance.

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