By Andrew Zashin*

This article originally appeared as a column for the Cleveland Jewish News.

In helping divorcing clients, we very frequently encounter marriages in which one spouse has been the primary breadwinner. Sometimes the other spouse has stayed home to raise the children, or perhaps works only part-time. Sometimes both spouses work full-time, but one of them is in a much higher paying position. Whatever the reason, the question is the same: “What will happen to my income when I get divorced?”

Most people are slightly familiar with the idea of child support. In Ohio, we have a nice, tidy formula to calculate it. Practitioners, courts and the Child Support Enforcement Agency usually have software packages into which we put the annual income of mom, the annual income of dad, the number of children, and a few other bits of information regarding certain expenses, and a number comes out the other side. You can find calculators online as well. There are, of course, numerous exceptions, caveats and arguments to be made, and it does not work well when the family income is in excess of $150,000. But at least it gives us a starting point.

Spousal support, on the other hand, is a more confusing animal, with no neat formula to calculate it. Its purpose has morphed a bit over time. It has its roots in a time when women worked as homemakers, most often with little to no other marketable job skills, and men worked outside the home to provide financial support for the family.

Of course nowadays it is commonplace to see a wide variety of family configurations. We certainly still see stay-at-home moms, but we also see dual-income families, stay-at-home dads, and many wives who out-earn their husbands. Thus, while the basic principles of spousal support have remained the same, spousal support is now gender-neutral – yes, men may also be awarded spousal support – and intended for rehabilitation, not permanent maintenance.

In determining whether and how much spousal support is appropriate, Ohio courts are required to consider a number of factors, including the parties’ respective incomes and earning capacities, the duration of the marriage, the career prospects that one may have given up to care for children of the marriage, and the time and expense required for a financially dependent spouse to become more independent.

While the list of guidelines is pretty comprehensive, the law does not state how much weight to give each factor, nor does it give any instruction on how to apply each factor. Thus, the courts have wide discretion when fashioning an award. And we haven’t even touched on duration of support yet.

Similarly, there are no guidelines under the law regarding how many years the financially disadvantaged spouse should receive support. The rule of thumb in Cuyahoga County, as in many other counties in northeast Ohio, is one year of spousal support for every three years of marriage. However, it is important to note that this is only a generally accepted practice, not a rule of law. Here, again, the courts again have wide discretion to find that more or less support is equitable.

Unfortunately this discretion often results in widely disparate support awards that depend on more than just the specific facts of your case. They also depend on what courtroom the matter is in. For example, one judge might rule to “maintain the status quo.”

Another judge might rule that your spouse must pay only necessary “living” expenses, including the mortgage, taxes, insurance, and utilities. Yet another judge might find that payment of all living expenses plus an amount of extra cash is more appropriate. All the scenarios are equally likely. Yes, you read that correctly – the same set of facts, tried in front of three different hearing officers, following the exact same set of laws, can result in three very different support awards.

Ultimately, each case is going to be unique, and what happened in your friend’s case, your sister’s case, or your mother’s hairdresser’s case might have virtually no correlation to what happens in your own. Regardless of more systemic concerns, an experienced family law professional will be able to look at the specifics of your case and, in spite of the inherent unpredictability of support awards, give you a range of reasonable outcomes tailored to your specific situation.

*Andrew Zashin writes about law for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is a co-managing partner with Zashin & Rich, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.