When a married couple gets a divorce, the court may award "alimony" or spousal support to one of the former spouses, based either on an agreement between the couple or a decision by the court itself. This is separate from the division of marital property and is decided on a case-by-case basis.
Many people have questions about how alimony may be related to child support as well. Alimony is different from child support payments because child support money can only be used for the benefit of minor children while they are in the custodial parent's care.
The following is a discussion of the basics of alimony and spousal support.
What Is Alimony?
The purpose of alimony is to limit any unfair economic effects of a divorce by providing a continuing income to a non-wage-earning or lower-wage-earning spouse. Part of the justification is that an ex-spouse may have chosen to forego a career to support the family and needs time to develop job skills to support themselves. Another purpose of alimony, especially in higher-income families, may be to help a spouse continue the standard of living they had during the marriage.
How the Amount of Alimony is Determined
Unlike child support, which in most states is mandated according to very specific monetary guidelines, courts have broad discretion in determining whether to award spousal support. If it is ordered, the family law judge also decides how much and for how long.
The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, on which many states' spousal support statutes are based, recommends that courts consider the following factors when arriving at a decision about alimony awards:
- The age, physical condition, emotional state, and financial condition 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 himself or herself
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 large increase in taxable income or receives large bonuses at work, the former spouse is not going to benefit from that increase like a child might with an increase in support.
On the other hand, if a paying spouse were to have 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. A review of their tax returns may convince the family court judge to reduce alimony — or they may not.
How Long Must Alimony Be Paid?
The world has changed greatly since divorce became commonplace. There are as many women as men in college now. And many women, including mothers, are in the workforce. On the other hand, a pay gap still remains between men and women.
Societal changes have resulted in an increase in judges ordering alimony for "rehabilitative" purposes. That is, for only as long as is necessary for the recipient spouse (of either gender) to receive additional training so they can become self-supporting.
That doesn't mean there is never a court order for long-term spousal support, especially 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.
Most awards end if the recipient remarries.
Spousal support also terminates upon the payer's death, although that isn't necessarily automatic. In cases where the recipient spouse is unlikely to obtain gainful employment due to age or health considerations, the court may order support from the payer's estate or life insurance proceeds.
Enforcement of Support Orders
Alimony awards may be hard to estimate but gauging whether the payer spouse will comply with a support order is even harder to predict. Alimony enforcement is not like child support enforcement, which has the "teeth" of wage garnishment, liens, and even arrest.
Because alimony can be awarded with a court order, the mechanisms available for enforcing any court order are available to a former spouse who's owed alimony. The alimony recipient can return to court in a contempt proceeding to force payment.
In the past, most alimony awards were for former wives from breadwinning former husbands. Now that most marriages include two wage earners, women are viewed as less dependent, and men may be primary parents. Courts and spousal support awards have kept pace. Orders of alimony payments from ex-wife to ex-husband are on the rise.
Alimony trends are also changing as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Obviously, alimony orders in same-sex divorce cases include a higher-earning spouse paying alimony to a dependent same-sex spouse.
Call a Family Law Attorney With Your Spousal Support Questions
The issue of alimony comes up in many divorce cases, whether in negotiations for an out-of-court settlement or in a divorce trial. Because it's often difficult to establish yourself financially after a divorce, alimony can play an important role in helping to adjust to life after marriage. In order to understand your options, and whether you could owe or receive alimony, talk to an experienced divorce law attorney in your area.