How does alimony work?

How does alimony work?

Alimony, also called “spousal support,” is money that the court orders one spouse to pay to the other spouse on a regular basis after a marriage is dissolved. It is separate and distinct from child support, but may under certain circumstances be combined with child support into a “family support” package. Alimony may be ordered temporarily, during a period of separation or while a divorce is pending. Or, alimony may be ordered short-term, long-term, or conditionally.

Until recently, men were routinely ordered to pay alimony to their ex-wives after a divorce. Changes in our society have gradually resulted in tremendous changes in the laws regarding alimony and in their application to modern-day marital situations. In the past, the husband was almost always the sole or major breadwinner in a family. Wives took on the traditional roles of mother and homemaker and typically did not work outside the home.

When a couple divorced, a stay-at-home mom, who had devoted herself to raising the couple’s children and caring for the family home, had little or no income-earning ability. In those cases, courts ordered the ex-husband to pay alimony to the ex-wife for a period of time. The idea was to give the ex-wife time to either obtain the job skills, training, or education necessary to support herself or, more often, to remarry.

Today, there are no hard and fast rules regarding alimony. How alimony will be awarded in a particular divorce case, or whether it will be awarded at all, is decided based on the details and specifics of the couple’s marriage and individual backgrounds. Oftentimes, where both the husband and wife earn comparable incomes, alimony will not be awarded at all.

It is becoming more and more a thing of the past, reserved for unique situations where it is necessary and appropriate. When it is awarded, it is just as likely today that the ex-wife will be the stronger earner and will be ordered to pay support to the ex-husband.

There are a number of factors the court will use to determine whether alimony is appropriate under a particular marital scenario. If both parties are employed outside the home and make approximately the same amount of money, it is unlikely the court will order alimony. If the marriage is a relatively short marriage and the unemployed spouse has skills and education which will allow him or her to obtain employment fairly quickly and easily, the court is also unlikely to award alimony under those circumstances.

On the other hand, if a couple has been married for 25 years, and if one spouse has given up education and career in order to devote himself or herself to raising the couple’s children, caring for the home and making meals, while during the course of the marriage the other spouse finished medical school and became a successful and well-paid doctor, then the court is likely to find that an order of alimony is appropriate for the stay-at-home spouse.

Once the court has determined that one of the parties should be entitled to receive alimony, there are additional considerations. The court must now decide how much alimony will be paid and for how long it will be paid. Long-term alimony is extremely rare today. In most cases where alimony is awarded, the employed spouse or “supporting spouse” is ordered to make alimony payments on a temporary and short-term basis to allow the unemployed or “supported spouse” time to get a job and, if appropriate, to obtain an education or vocational training.

Factors which the court will take into consideration in making its decision as to the amount of the alimony award and the duration of the payments include the following:

  1. How long was the marriage? An award of alimony is more likely to be made in the case of a long-term marriage. Typically, this involves a marriage where the supported spouse has made various sacrifices over a long period of time with respect to education and earning capacity in order to make a home for the supporting spouse. The longer the duration of the marriage, the more likely it is that the court will find that the supported spouse is entitled to compensation for his or her role in the supporting spouse’s financial success. The duration of the marriage is generally the single most important factor the court will consider in determining whether alimony will be awarded and, if so, the amount of alimony and the duration of alimony payments.
  2. What were the couple’s marital arrangements? The court will take into consideration whether the couple has expressly (either orally or in writing) or impliedly (based on their conduct) agreed that one spouse would forego education and career in order to provide a comfortable home for the other spouse. Alimony would more likely be awarded, for example, if it is established that the supported spouse gave up opportunities in terms of education and career in order to raise children, clean house, cook and do laundry for the supporting spouse, while the supporting spouse pursued a top-notch education and was able to establish himself or herself in a well-paying career.
  3. What kind of lifestyle did the couple enjoy? Generally, the supported spouse is entitled to continue to live a lifestyle that approximates that to which he or she has become accustomed over a long period of time. In other words, where a couple has combined efforts to reach a certain level of success and enjoys a comfortable lifestyle, the court is not going to permit the supporting spouse to continue to live in luxury in a palatial estate and expect the supported spouse to live in a one-room apartment on the seedy side of town. The court will generally order alimony payments to be in an amount sufficient to allow the supported spouse to continue in a comfortable lifestyle. Payments will generally continue for a sufficient period of time to allow the supported spouse to catch up to the supporting spouse in terms of earning capacity. Again, lifestyle will be considered in connection with the length of the marriage. If Britney Spears and Kevin Federline divorced today, for example, it is unlikely that the court would find that the marriage was of sufficient duration for Federline to have contributed to Spears’ successor for him to have become inseparably accustomed to his current lifestyle.
  4. What are the respective educations and earning capacities of the spouses? The court will consider how much education each spouse had before the marriage. The court will also consider how much education each spouse has at the time of the divorce and whether either spouse contributed to the ability of the other spouse to earn an education. The court will consider the career history of each spouse to determine whether one spouse put his or her career on hold in order to support the marriage. The court will also consider whether the supported spouse has the ability to immediately resume employment and, if so, whether he or she will be able to earn a sufficient income to continue to live comfortably. If the court decides that the supported spouse needs time, generally no more than two to five years, to obtain an education or vocational training, or to resume a career, then the court will likely order alimony for that period of time. If the court decides that the supported spouse could conceivably re-enter the job market immediately and earn a sufficient income to support himself or herself, then it is unlikely alimony will be awarded. Instead, the court may take into consideration factors that will help the supported spouse to resume his or her career. The court may, for instance, order additional child support to help with such things as child care issues.
  5. What does the supported spouse need in order to become self-sufficient? Once the court has decided that alimony is necessary and appropriate in a particular case, the court will then take all of the above factors into consideration to decide the amount and duration of the alimony award. The court will again consider the length of the marriage, whether the parties had any agreements regarding education and career, and the supported spouse’s current educational and career capabilities. The court will then fashion an award of alimony that will allow the supported spouse to live comfortably for a sufficient time to earn an education and re-enter the job market at an appropriate level. The court may include in the award of alimony amounts necessary for education, including tuition and books, and/or for vocational training. Courts have a great deal of discretion in making these awards and can fashion an award that will meet the unique needs of the parties. If appropriate and fair, the court may include amounts necessary for transportation, clothing, meals or anything else considered necessary or appropriate to enable the supported spouse to reasonably achieve his or her own career goals and become self-supporting.

In addition to the above considerations, an award of alimony may be conditioned upon certain other factors. For instance, the court may order that alimony be terminated upon the supported spouse’s remarriage. This, however, is a fairly archaic notion that considers that the new spouse will assume financial responsibility for the supported spouse.

More often today, the court will condition the continuation of alimony payments on other factors, such as whether the supported spouse is pursuing an education or career, or whether he or she is earning a sufficient income to be considered self-supporting.

An important consideration for unmarried cohabitants is that formal marriage provides a good deal of legal protection and benefit to the parties. Where a couple does not have the benefit of marriage, it is a good idea to enter into a written agreement regarding the respective rights, duties, and obligations of the parties.

This is particularly true where one partner will be foregoing career advancement to take care of the couple’s home. A written agreement regarding these matters will help to provide contractual protection similar to the benefits of marriage in the event the relationship ends.

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