Can Missouri Courts Award Retroactive Spousal Maintenance in a Divorce Case?

Glass jar Alimony

Divorce requires a reorganization of nearly every aspect of one’s life. This is a difficult adjustment for most people, but particularly so when one spouse is unable to support themselves without the other spouse’s assistance. The concept of “alimony” has a rather bad reputation. In pop culture, alimony is commonly associated with one spouse attempting to punish the other spouse, but that is not its intended purpose. Alimony is supposed to provide the means to obtain a fresh start for a person who previously relied on their spouse. In Missouri, “alimony” is now known as spousal maintenance or spousal support.

A Missouri court may award spousal support when one spouse has significantly greater earning capacity than the other because of various factors. Those factors may help guide the court in determining the amount and duration of the support obligation. Because divorce cases can take time to resolve, some people might want to request retroactive spousal support, such as an order dated back to the date of filing for divorce, or the date the parties separated.

The Missouri Supreme Court ruled on the question of retroactive support late last year. It found that state law only allows courts to award spousal support “prospectively.” Archdekin v. Archdekin, 562 S.W.3d 298, 306 (Mo. 2018). While a final order cannot order retroactive support, the court noted that temporary maintenance is available while a divorce is pending. This could provide support for periods of time prior to a final judgment granting the divorce.

What Is Spousal Maintenance?

Section 452.335 of the Missouri Revised Statutes allows a court to order one spouse to pay support to the other spouse, but only when that person lacks the resources to support themselves and cannot obtain sufficient income through employment. The statute identifies numerous factors for the court to take into account when determining the amount of a spousal support obligation. These include the financial resources available to each party, including the property distributed to each party in the divorce itself, and the general standard of living that the couple had previously maintained.

The statute specifies that a person who qualifies to receive spousal support must be unable to provide for their own “reasonable needs,” with “reasonable” being the key term. As mentioned earlier, the word “alimony” often carries a negative connotation, as it is associated with an obligation to maintain an ex-spouse’s lavish standard of living. The implication, of course, is that alimony maintains an unreasonable standard of living. The spousal support statute directs the court to consider the disparity in earning capacity between the parties. The intent is to provide support for a person who relied on their spouse during the marriage.

In addition to those factors, the court should consider the amount of time that the party seeking maintenance would need to improve their employment prospects, such as through additional training or education. This places an expectation on the recipient spouse, although not every spousal support recipient will be able to go back to school after a divorce. The need for spousal support may arise, for example, from illness, injury, or other disability.

How Long Can a Spouse Be Obligated to Pay Spousal Maintenance?

State law merely provides that a court should order payment of spousal support for an amount of time that it “deems just,” in light of the various factors identified in § 452.335. Factors like the duration of the marriage and the ages of the parties may influence the court’s decision. A spousal support order could have a definite end point, or it could remain in effect until the recipient remarries, either party dies, or the court modifies the order.

How Is the Amount of Spousal Maintenance Determined?

Much like the duration of an order, the amount of support is left mostly to the court’s discretion. All of the above-described factors could influence the amount. The income and resources of the payor are obviously important, as well as the recipient’s needs.

Section 452.335 also identifies “the conduct of the parties during the marriage” as a factor for courts to take into account. This is ambiguous by design. It could mean wrongdoing by one or both spouses, or it could mean positive contributions to the marriage.

What About Retroactive Spousal Maintenance?

The wording of § 452.335 indicates that an order to pay spousal support should be part of a final judgment of dissolution. In some situations, a court may issue a judgment of dissolution despite a lack of personal jurisdiction over one of the spouses. The spouse who was present for the divorce proceeding can bring a separate action for spousal support later, once they are able to locate the other person. In either situation, the court makes a decision on spousal support at the same time as, or after, deciding on issues like distribution of marital property.

A key issue on appeal in the Archdekin case was concern that the order dissolving the marriage and ordering the husband to pay spousal maintenance, issued in 2013, was not a “final” judgment. A pending bankruptcy case prevented the court from ordering a distribution of most of the marital property at that time. The 2013 order included a spousal support order retroactive to November 2011—the approximate date of separation. The court modified that order several times before issuing a final judgment in 2016, but the provisions on spousal support did not change.

The husband appealed, arguing that the court could not order retroactive spousal support, and that it could not order spousal support before ordering a final division of marital property. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed. It held that the trial court “erred in awarding maintenance to commence prior to the date it entered its final judgment.” Archdekin, 562 S.W.3d at 306. It noted that § 452.315 of the Missouri Revised Statutes allows courts to order temporary spousal support prior to a final judgment of dissolution. Since the wife had not moved for temporary support, the court reversed the retroactive portion of the spousal support award.

The court also agreed with the husband about ordering spousal support before a final division of marital property. It also found, however, that the husband “was not prejudiced” by this, because the eventual property distribution “did not materially change the award of maintenance.” Id. at 301-02.

Family law attorney Mark A. Wortman focuses his practice exclusively on divorce and other family law matters in the Kansas City, Missouri area. To schedule a confidential consultation with a knowledgeable legal advocate, please contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100.