Spousal Support (Alimony) Basics

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. The following is a discussion of the basics of alimony and spousal support.

Why 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 one spouse may have chosen to forego a career to support the family, and needs time to develop job skills to support his or herself. Another purpose may be to help a spouse continue the standard of living they had during marriage.

How is the Amount of Alimony 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 alimony and, if so, 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 in making decisions 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; and
  • The ability of the payer spouse to support the recipient and still support himself or herself.

Alimony and Support Orders

Although awards may be hard to estimate, whether the payer spouse will comply with a support order is even harder to gauge. Alimony enforcement is not like child-support enforcement, which has the "teeth" of wage garnishment, liens, and other enforcement mechanisms. The recipient could, however, return to court in a contempt proceeding to force payment. Because alimony can be awarded with a court order, the mechanisms available for enforcing any court order are available to a former spouse who is owed alimony.

How Long Must Alimony Be Paid?

Alimony is often deemed "rehabilitative," that is, it is ordered for only so long as is necessary for the recipient spouse to receive training and become self-supporting. If the divorce decree does not specify a spousal support termination date, the payments must continue until the court orders otherwise. Most awards end if the recipient remarries. Termination upon the payer's death is not necessarily automatic; in cases in which the recipient spouse is unlikely to obtain gainful employment, due perhaps to age or health considerations, the court may order that further support be provided from the payer's estate or life insurance proceeds.

Alimony Trends

In the past, most alimony awards provided for payments to former wives by breadwinning former husbands. As the culture has changed, so that now most marriages include two wage earners, women are viewed as less dependent, and men are more apt to be primary parents, the courts and spousal support awards have kept pace. More and more, the tradition of men paying and women receiving spousal support is being eroded, and 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 nationwide. This has given rise to alimony orders in same-sex divorce cases where partners with higher earnings will be required to pay alimony to a dependent same-sex spouse.

Call a Family Law Attorney for Your Spousal Support Questions

The issue of alimony will come up in many divorces, whether it's through out-of-court settlements, or 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, it's important to speak with an experienced divorce law attorney in your area.

Next Steps

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