Mar 22, 2024

Supporting Your (Former) Spouse In Sickness And In Health

With the help of modern medicine, people are able to receive earlier diagnoses for illnesses that may not display symptoms for months or even years in the future. While the stereotype is that upon divorce, spouses’ vows – including to care for one another in sickness and in health – cease to exist, Illinois courts have a different take on the matter.

In determining whether a spouse is entitled to maintenance (spousal support), the Court is required to consider a host of factors, such as the income and property of each spouse, each spouse’s needs, impairments of present and future earning capacities (including those that result from a spouse having foregone or delayed education, training, employment, or other career opportunities due to the marriage), each spouse’s age and health, etc.

If the Court does not find that the circumstances warrant a maintenance award, the spouse seeking maintenance is barred from ever receiving maintenance, meaning that spouse can never come back into court and request maintenance from the other spouse. For example, if two spouses make nearly equal income, are each able to support themselves, and each have similar future earning capacities, it is likely the Court would bar both spouses from ever requesting or receiving maintenance from the other in the future.

What happens, however, when those two spouses currently make nearly equal income, are each currently able to support themselves, but one spouse just received an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis? Of course, these spouses no longer have similar future earning capacities. The question remains: how far into the future is the Court required to look?  When it comes to degenerative illnesses, especially those without a cure, it is nearly impossible to quantify the precise rate of progression of the illness. Every diagnosis presents its own unique facts and circumstances.

Rather than barring the diagnosed spouse from requesting or receiving maintenance in the future, another option available to the Court is to “reserve” the issue of maintenance. In doing so, the Court acknowledges that while there is no present need for maintenance – because the two spouses make nearly equal income and are each currently able to support themselves – it will retain its jurisdiction to later modify the Judgment and award maintenance if the symptoms (that exist and are known at the time Judgment is entered) become debilitating.

Of course, the Court cannot reserve the issue forever. Illinois case law suggests that a maintenance reservation will be proper so long as it is not “excessively long” and is supported by medical testimony, usually given by the diagnosed spouse’s medical provider.

So while a divorce may sever the bonds of matrimony, Illinois courts have made clear that the obligation to support one another in sickness and in health could very well extend beyond the end of a marriage.

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