For a little while, Minnesota divorce attorneys had access to a computer program which they could use to help negotiate whether one party was entitled to spousal maintenance and, if so, how much and for how long. This program has long since disappeared, but I do remember keying in things like the years of marriage, the ages of the parties, the years one spouse was out of the workforce, the relative health of each individual, and their respective education levels and incomes. This program was a tool and not a guideline. Though Minnesota Statutes Section 518.552 lists the factors involved in an award of spousal maintenance, every family, every couple, and every judge is different. I have been in the position as a mediator of watching couples with similar marriage lengths, income disparities, and education levels actually negotiate radically different spousal maintenance awards—and leave the negotiation satisfied (though not generally ecstatic) with the result. As an attorney, I have pulled my hair out when a client either rejects spousal maintenance or agrees to pay what amounts to, in my opinion, way too much spousal maintenance.
Back when many more cases were sent to trial, it was easier. All I would do was remove the Anoka County judges (long since retired) who had clear opinions either for or against spousal maintenance. Now it is much more complex and multi faceted. I educate my clients in the law. I send them to vocational rehabilitation specialists and to financial planners. I have urged them to have a plan for their lives moving forward.
But every case is different. An attorney’s job is to educate his or her own client in the law, forward an opinion about what they feel may be a fair award, and then listen to their client about how they want to proceed. If the attorney senses a disconnect between their opinion of a fair amount of maintenance and the amount sought by the client, then the attorney should listen for other, intangible factors that may be driving that client’s decision. Perhaps one spouse who knows she is entitled to a large award of spousal maintenance will choose to take less, or none at all, because she knows that her husband will make family gatherings and their children’s life a hell if she does so. Perhaps a client has been told by his wife that he will never see his grandchildren unless a certain amount of maintenance is paid. A good attorney will ask these questions for two reasons: first, to really understand their client’s position and second to at least address the intangible issue in the overall negotiation (and in the follow-up letter to the client). Clients are best suited explaining their reasoning for spousal support to their attorneys also. The ‘disconnect’ does tend to travel both ways and can be easily reconnected.