Divorcing a Dependent Spouse

When a couple decides to divorce, state laws require that they divide their marital assets and debts as part of their divorce settlement. The purpose of this division is so both spouses can take their fair share of the marital property and move forward independently from each other. 

But what happens when one spouse has been financially dependent on the other and, despite what they come away with in their divorce, may continue to need financial support from the other?

What is a dependent spouse?

A dependent spouse is one who already is or needs to be financially dependent on the other spouse for various reasons. A dependent spouse may be one who:

  • Has chosen to stay at home and put their career aside to care for the couple’s children 
  • Has special needs, a long-term health condition, or a debilitating long-term injury and cannot hold employment outside the home
  • Suffers from Alzheimer’s disease or another kind of dementia or is in a nursing home because they need a caregiver for another reason
  • Works but makes significantly less money than their spouse
  • Is an older adult who has never worked outside the home

When one spouse relies wholly or in part on the other for financial support, including medical care, it can be an important factor in a divorce settlement. 

What happens to a dependent spouse after divorce?

The goal after divorce is for both people to move on independently. But when spouses have very different earning capacities or physical and emotional needs, it can leave one at a significant financial disadvantage. Sometimes, the court will try to even this financial playing field by ordering the higher-earning spouse to pay some form of spousal support or alimony to the other so they can maintain the health care and standard of living they are used to.

When one spouse has stayed home with children or makes significantly less money than the other, it will take time before they can become more independent. They may need to go back to school, renew a former career, or enroll in some other form of job training. In the meantime, if the other spouse is financially able, the court may order temporary spousal support for a finite period of time to allow the dependent person to become more financially independent. 

But sometimes, a dependent spouse will never be able to take care of themselves without financial assistance. Depending on the mental or physical capacity of the dependent spouse and the other spouse's financial ability, the court may assign long-term or even permanent spousal support to the independent spouse. If that person isn’t able to financially provide for their dependent ex-spouse, the dependent spouse may have to seek government benefits (Medicaid, SSI, or SSDI), live with other family members, or enter a long-term care facility. 

Dealing with divorce guilt

Decisions that affect others are always a struggle. While divorce is often just two people who no longer have the same goals and needs as they did when they came together, when one spouse is financially dependent on the other, it’s difficult for the other not to feel some guilt or remorse over “abandoning the other” in a divorce. This is especially true when the dependent spouse is dealing with a health crisis or disability

Financial constraints, health challenges, and mental and physical disabilities can heavily burden a marriage. Unfortunately, feelings of guilt won’t change those realities and can even add to those burdens. For spouses who have tried their best yet the marriage was still unsuccessful, a divorce may be the only natural conclusion to allow each person to move on and find happiness apart. 

Not all divorces need to be angry battles. When one spouse is dependent on the other, the best divorce scenario is one that maintains the dignity of both people. 

At Hello Divorce, we understand the sense of loss and grief that can come when a marriage breaks down. This is why we offer services such as divorce financial planning, mediation, and divorce coaching to help spouses navigate the divorce process in the least damaging way possible. Schedule a free 15-minute phone call to find out more about our online divorce plans and services.

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.