Spousal Support in Virginia: Who Gets It, for How Long, and How Much?

What Kind of Spousal Support Awards Are There?

Known by some as “alimony” or “maintenance”, spousal support is often awarded upon divorce, particularly in cases of divorce where the parties have been married for a meaningful amount of time and there is a wage gap between the parties.

The three basic types of spousal support are periodic payments for an undefined duration, periodic payments for a defined duration, and a lump sum award.

  1. Periodic payment for an undefined duration is a specific sum that a party pays at certain intervals, that doesn’t typically end unless 1) one of the parties dies, 2) the payee remarries or cohabitates in a marriage-like relationship for more than one year, or 3) further order of the court.
  2. Periodic payments for a defined duration are payments at certain intervals, for a certain amount, that end on a definite date.
  3. Lump sum support is an award of a lump sum that can be ordered payable at once or over installments, but in which the total amount is set.

Who Is Awarded Spousal Support?

The existence of a wage gap is not strictly determinative of whether spousal support is to be paid. The court must establish whether a party is entitled to support by looking at a list of statutory factors surrounding the marriage and the divorce. A finding of adultery, for example, can preclude a party from receiving spousal support. However, the court may award spousal support in such a situation if it determines that a denial of support and maintenance would constitute a manifest injustice based on the respective degrees of fault during the marriage and relative economic circumstances of the parties. It is important to remember is that spousal support is not punitive, and will not be awarded merely to punish one of the parties for wrongdoing.

There are additional factors the court might consider, such as the duration of the marriage, contributions to the family, standard of living established during the marriage and the earning capacity of the parties. You can find the factors listed in § 20.1-107.1 of the Virginia Code.

How Much Spousal Support Will Be Paid?

While there is no set “formula” for determining long-term / post-marital support, some jurisdictions in Virginia, including Fairfax County, have established guidelines for calculating temporary support.

Temporary or pendente lite support is only paid while the divorce is pending. An award of temporary support is not intended to create the presumption of a final award, but can sometimes serve as a general guide as to whether (and how much) support will be awarded in a final order. The formula Fairfax County has established provides the following:

28% x Payor’s (higher earning party) Income – 58% x Payee’s (lower earning party) Income

EXAMPLE: Payor earns $10,000 per month, Payee earns $3,000 per month.

28% x $10,000 = $2,800             58% x $6,000 = $1,740

$2,800 – $1,740 = $1,060 (monthly support)

The most important thing to remember is that every case is different. We here at PJI Law understand that separating or divorcing couples are unique, and that the questions of whether you or your spouse will get support, and how much it might be, can only be addressed upon a review of your specific situation, facts and finances. A consultation is an excellent way to tackle those questions head on.

How to Discuss Estate Planning with Your Family

Death and money are among the two most difficult subjects to talk about. So it is no surprise that combining them both into a discussion with loved ones about estate planning can be incredibly uncomfortable.

With that in mind, we at PJI Law recommend that families have an open dialogue among themselves about estate planning. Estate planning is not only for the elderly or the wealthy. Parents with young children need estate plans to ensure their children are provided for physically and financially. Children over the age of 18 need estate planning documents so that their family can help them manage their finances or make medical decisions in case of an injury or sudden disability. Older adults need them so that their loved ones have peace of mind and are not left guessing about last wishes, or even worse, litigating them. These discussions don’t have to be negative, since they stem from loving, caring for, and planning for our families. In fact, creating an estate plan is a very empowering experience for many people.

Estate planning isn't only for the elderly - all families must do it.
Estate planning isn’t only for the elderly – all families must do it.                                                                        

When looking to approach family members about estate plans, particularly if you have found it difficult to do so thus far, we recommend the following tips:

  • Talk about your own estate plan and goals. If your loved ones know you have taken these steps for yourself, they may be more receptive to the suggestion that they do the same.
  • Keep a tone of respect. The person you are talking to is an adult (whether it is someone younger or older than you). People are more engaged when they feel that they are an integral part of the discussion.
  • Be direct and communicate your position.
  • Make sure you focus on the positive aspect of being in the driver’s seat and making the decisions for yourself while you can.
  • Don’t nag. Simply plant the seed and water it from time to time.
  • Voice your opinions and concerns using “I” statements.
  • Don’t blame or use “You” statements.
  • Be mindful that it may take some time and many conversations for there to be progress.

At PJI Law, it is our goal to give our clients the education and tools they need to take control of their futures and to plan for their loved ones. If you are one of the many Virginians without estate planning documents (including a Last Will and Testament, a Living Will, a Financial Power of Attorney, and any necessary trusts), we are ready to help you take the first step in ensuring your loved ones are cared for. Please call us to schedule a time to meet with one of our attorneys to discuss the next steps.

10 Ways to Reduce Your Legal Fees

There are times when you simply cannot avoid investing in an attorney to assist you with your legal matter. But this does not mean that there aren’t many steps you can take to shrink your legal bills in cases billed on an hourly basis. In fact, one reason law firms use hourly billing for certain types of cases is that they don’t know how efficient and cooperative of a client you will be, and as a consequence, how much time they have to dedicate to your case. So then, what can you do to receive equally good service while keeping your attorney’s fees low?

1. Respond to Your Lawyer Promptly. Your lawyer can work much more efficiently when he has the answers he needs, without needing to continue following up with you, and without needing to spend time requesting extensions. Further, your prompt “Ok” on a court document could mean the difference between the document being sent for filing by mail ahead of time, rather than by the more expensive same-day courier.

2. Keep Your Lawyer Updated. Nothing wastes your lawyer’s time more than drafting a document or preparing for a hearing based on a certain set of facts, only to find out at the last minute about an event or update that you have known about for some time and that changes your lawyer’s course of action. Your lawyer should find out about relevant new information as soon as possible, and should hear it from you, rather than from opposing counsel.

3. Understand Your Lawyer’s Billable Hours. Many law firms bill in increments of 15 minutes, meaning that even a 6-minute phone call could be billed as 0.25 of an hour (we at PJI Law believe this is excessive, so we bill in increments of 6 minutes, or 0.1 of an hour – and we don’t bill for things like “reviewing voice messages”). Understanding how your lawyer bills, and what is considered as billable, will help you better plan your communication and actions during your case.

There are many ways for clients to reduce a lawyer’s fees.

4. Communicate with Staff when Possible. If you need to contact the law firm regarding a non-legal matter, such as getting a copy of a certain document, reach out to a legal assistant or secretary, rather than to the lawyer. Depending on the service, some firms bill for an assistant’s time and some don’t, but either way it will be far more cost-effective than using your lawyer’s time when you don’t really need it.

5. Deliver All Documents Upfront and in an Organized Manner. As soon as you sign your agreement with the law firm, deliver all relevant documents to your lawyer immediately, and supplement them as you receive new updated documents even if you haven’t yet been specifically asked for them. Otherwise, your lawyer’s work will be interrupted if he is missing certain documents, and he will inevitably contact you about them later as the need arises. Further, the more organized your documents are (grouped, tabbed, labeled, etc.), the more efficiently your lawyer can work with them.

6. Do Some of the Work Yourself. In many cases, there is at least some work that you can do yourself. This includes gathering documents, communicating with certain third parties, preparing responses to what are called “discovery” requests, and so on. The more you are able to do, the less your lawyer has to do. But this one comes with a big caution sign: Always coordinate with your lawyer before trying to do something yourself, otherwise you could hurt your case.

7. Consolidate and Organize Your Emails. If your lawyer asks you for certain electronic documents that are sitting in a dozen different emails in your Inbox, do not simply forward to him each individual email with its attachment. Instead, download all of the attachments to your computer, and then send them to your lawyer in a single email (if you do not take the time to organize them, he will have to). And if your lawyer sends you an email with a numbered list of questions, answer them in a numbered list, maybe even below each question. Do not give your answers in one long paragraph that will take longer to parse.

8. Avoid Venting to Your Lawyer. Venting is sometimes inevitable, and is certainly understandable in many stressful situations and disputes, such as in emotional divorce and child custody cases. But a lawyer has a limited number of hours per day, and even if he genuinely sympathizes with you (and he probably does), he has to bill for the time he is using although the time spent is not doing much to help your legal case. In most cases you will find that a good friend, a spiritual leader, or a therapist not only makes more sense financially, but is also better equipped to discuss the emotional aspects of your situation with you.

9. Ask Questions as Soon as You Have Them. Sometimes you might be too embarrassed to ask a question, or for any other reason might avoid telling your lawyer that you don’t understand a certain aspect of your case. But your lawyer has no way of knowing this, and will proceed on the assumption that you understand the plan. Asking questions as soon as they arise will be far more cost-effective than asking “around” the question for weeks and months, or letting the case go in a direction you may not fully understand.

10. Use Your Phone Calls Efficiently. If you can send a brief email update or response to your lawyer, there is no need to initiate a phone call, which will likely be more time-consuming for the lawyer than reading your email. And when on the phone, don’t force your lawyer to repeat a question because you answered on a tangent the first time. When your lawyer is asking you specific questions that don’t seem to deal directly with your biggest frustration, answer the questions – your lawyer knows the issues and wouldn’t have asked the specific questions if he didn’t a good reason to do so.

Of course, the one thing that could save you the most in legal fees is the settlement of your case on acceptable terms, if possible. The earlier the settlement, the more you stand to save in billable hours. With that said, it was not included in the list above because settlement is an immense, substantive step that you will necessarily discuss with your lawyer as a possibility, and that will vary wildly from case to case.

Our attorneys here at PJI Law are always happy to answer any questions our clients have about how to reduce legal fees on a case-by-case basis. We hope that this list can serve as a good start!