When a married couple gets divorced, the court may award alimony, spousal support, or spousal maintenance to one of the former spouses. The court awards these as an agreement between the divorcing spouses or by court order. This is separate from the division of marital property and not a part of child support. Alimony is not automatic. The court decides on a case-by-case basis.
Read on to learn more about the basics of alimony and spousal support.
What Is Alimony?
The purpose of alimony is to limit any unfair economic effects of a divorce. It provides continuing income to a spouse who has little or no pay. One reason for the economic maintenance is that an ex-spouse may have chosen to give up a career to raise the family and care for the home. They may have also paid for the other spouse to go to school so they could get a higher-paying job. They may need time to develop job skills to support themselves. Spousal support is also to help an ex-spouse maintain the standard of living they had during the marriage.
Laws have also changed to reflect that either spouse may be eligible for spousal support, not just women.
Types of Alimony or Spousal Support
There are many different types of spousal support. Your state may have different names for each, but the following will give you a general idea of what might be available.
- Rehabilitative alimony: A court awards this during a transitional period while the lower-earning spouse is going back to school or is undergoing career training that will increase their earning capacity. This is short-term support until the spouse becomes self-sufficient and meets their financial needs. Often a judge will look at the duration of the marriage when deciding how long the support payments will continue.
- Reimbursement alimony: This alimony repays one spouse for their contributions to the marriage. Often, one spouse will have supported the other while they attended school or training to increase that spouse's income. This spouse may have even paid for training and higher education costs. One spouse may have stayed home to raise the family and care for the home instead of pursuing a career. This form of spousal support helps to balance the benefits the ex-spouse received from that support.
- Temporary alimony: A judge may order spousal support while the divorce process is ongoing. A judge can order this as part of a legal separation agreement. Temporary support is usually terminated once the divorce is final or a new support agreement exists.
- Permanent alimony: The court orders this type of award when one spouse cannot work or support themselves due to age or disability. If there are children whose needs make it difficult for the parent to work to cover their living expenses, the court may grant them spousal support. It is not necessarily permanent. Spousal support will stop once certain conditions are met, such as remarriage or death of the supported spouse.
- Lump sum alimony: A judge may order a support award in one lump payment. The ex-spouses may also decide on a lump sum instead of monthly payments.
How the Amount of Alimony is Determined
Alimony laws differ by state. Unlike child support, which is mandated according to very specific guidelines, courts have a lot of leeway in determining whether to award spousal support. If ordered, the family law judge will decide how much and for what amount of time.
The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, on which many states' spousal support statutes are based, recommends that courts look at the following factors when deciding on alimony awards:
- The age, physical condition, emotional state, and financial situation of the former spouses
- The length of time the recipient would need for education or training to become self-sufficient
- The couple's standard of living during the marriage
- The length of the marriage
- The ability of the payer spouse to support the recipient and still support themself
How Long Must Alimony Be Paid?
Spousal support may be court-ordered for a set period of time, or it may be for the longer term. This is especially true if a spouse is older, disabled, or ill. If the divorce decree doesn't specify a spousal support termination date, payments must continue until the court orders otherwise.
There has been an increase in judges ordering rehabilitative alimony. This form of support only continues for as long as necessary for the recipient spouse to receive training to become self-supporting.
Most awards end if the receiving spouse remarries. Sometimes it ends when they begin to cohabitate with someone else.
Spousal support can end when the payer dies, although that isn't necessarily automatic. In cases where the recipient spouse is unlikely to become gainfully employed due to age or health considerations, the court may order support from the payer's estate or life insurance proceeds.
Increases or Decreases in Alimony
Unlike child support, which has occasional cost-of-living increases, an alimony order tends to stay the same from year to year. Even if the ex-spouse has a significant increase in taxable income or receives large bonuses at work, the former spouse will not benefit from that increase like a child might with an increase in support.
A court may consider adjusting spousal support if there is a significant change in the circumstances of the paying spouse. This may include a job loss or the spouse becoming disabled.
If a paying spouse has a significant drop in income to the point where they can no longer afford alimony, they may petition the court to reduce their alimony payment. They must prove their inability to meet their spousal support obligations to the court.
Enforcement of Support Orders
Alimony awards may be hard to estimate, but gauging whether the payer spouse will follow a support order is even harder to predict. Spousal support enforcement is not like child support enforcement, which has the "teeth" of wage garnishment, liens, and even arrest.
Because a court can order alimony, the mechanisms available for enforcing any court order are open to a former spouse who's owed alimony. The alimony recipient can return to court in a contempt proceeding to force payment.
Spousal Support Trends
In the past, most alimony awards were for former wives from breadwinning former husbands. Now that most marriages include two wage earners, women are less dependent. More men may be primary parents to minor children while the wife works. Courts and spousal support awards have kept pace. Orders of alimony payments from ex-wife to ex-husband are on the rise. A court may order spousal support regardless of whom has child custody.
Spousal support trends are also changing due to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Same-sex married couples have the same rights and privileges as any married couple. Courts award spousal support under the same guidelines regardless of the sexes of the married couple.
The tax advantages and penalties for spousal support have changed significantly as of 2019. Spousal support payments are no longer deductible for the paying spouse on their taxes if the alimony order was entered after January 1, 2019. The person receiving spousal support does not have to claim the payments as taxable income.
This will cost some tax savings to the spouse making payments. But it benefits the already financially disadvantaged spouse receiving support. For more information about how spousal support may affect your taxes, see FindLaw's article on Alimony and Taxes or consult a local divorce attorney.
Discussing Your Spousal Support Questions With a Family Law Attorney
The issue of alimony comes up in many divorce cases, whether in negotiations for an out-of-court settlement or a divorce trial. Because it's often difficult to establish yourself financially after a divorce, spousal support can play an important role in helping to adjust to life post-divorce. To understand your options and whether you could owe or receive alimony, talk to an experienced divorce law attorney in your area. Only a divorce attorney can give accurate legal advice and protect your rights.
If you feel unsafe in your home or have experienced domestic violence, don't hesitate to get help. A divorce attorney can help you navigate the divorce process and protect your legal rights and safety.