Illinois already has a formula, or guideline amounts, for determining child support. These are written into the law. But there is no similar guideline for spousal support, which has led to a lot of discrepancy in what gets awarded. At the beginning of next year, however, a new Illinois law goes into effect, and it will set a formula for determining spousal support.
Illinois technically calls it spousal “maintenance.” It’s the same thing as spousal support or alimony – an amount paid by one spouse to the other, during and/or after divorce. A typical situation involves a spouse who stayed home with children, or for other reasons benefiting the family, instead of pursuing a career. One purpose of maintenance is to support that spouse while they get back into the workforce
Up until now, the amount of maintenance awarded to a spouse has varied considerably. Sometimes, the divorcing couple would agree to an amount. Other times, it was argued in court and the judge would decide. Judges have had a set of legal factors to guide them, but there was no formula and therefore the results varied widely. Now, beginning January 1, 2015, judges will have something more concrete to follow.
The new maintenance law is based on the gross income of the parties and the length of the marriage. The gross income determines the amount of the support owed after the marriage is dissolved, and the length of the marriage determines the duration of the payments. The law only applies to couples whose gross combined income is less than $250,000, although judges could presumably apply it to couples with higher income if they found it appropriate.
The amount of maintenance is 30% of the payor’s gross income minus 20% of the payee’s gross income. So if Spouse A makes $100,000 and Spouse B makes $20,000, then the maintenance amount paid to Spouse B would be $26,000 (30% of $100,000 minus 20% of $20,000).
There is a limit. The amount you get from the above formula, when added to the gross income of the payee, can’t exceed 40% of the couple’s combined gross income. So in this example, the maintenance of $26,000 plus payee’s income of $20,000 comes to a total of $46,000. This is less than 40% of their combined gross income of $120,000, which is $48,000, so no adjustments would need to be made.
The law would come up with a maintenance amount of $26,000 in this case. The general goal, in less technical terms, is that the bigger the income gap, the higher the payment to the spouse who earns less.
The amount of maintenance determined above is per year. In order to know how long payments will go on, you take the length of the marriage and multiply it by a factor, according to the following schedule:
0-5 years = .20
5-10 years = .40
10-15 years = .60
15-20 years = .80
If the marriage is for more than 20 years, the court may order permanent maintenance or maintenance for a time equal to the length of the marriage.
This formula isn’t automatically used in every divorce case. First, the court must determine whether maintenance is even appropriate in a given case. Then, they can apply the formula. It’s important to know that the law gives judges the option of not using the formula, but they have to give a reason why they didn’t. In other words, judges still have discretion.
A major benefit of set guidelines is predictability and consistency. It helps attorneys advise their clients about likely outcomes. It can save legal fees by making the support amount fairly certain rather than a wide-open issue, which takes more time for lawyers and judges. On the other hand, a strict guideline can’t possibly make sense in every case. It will be interesting to see how and when judges use their discretion once the new guidelines become law.