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What Is Alimony and How Does Spousal Support Work?

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When you go through a divorce, it’s common to feel relieved a dysfunctional relationship is ending. But if your ex was the primary breadwinner, it’s also normal to be concerned about supporting yourself without their income — or about having to pay alimony to a lower-earning spouse.

But alimony isn’t a given during divorce. No matter how much you protect your finances before a divorce, you can’t force a court to award or not award alimony. The law governs that aspect. But if you understand what it is and how it works, you can at least predict whether it will be part of your divorce settlement.  

What Is Alimony?

Alimony is money one spouse pays to another during or after a divorce. The receiving spouse typically earned less money than the paying spouse during the marriage. Alimony is also known as spousal support or spousal maintenance. 

The goal of alimony is to allow the lower-earning spouse to maintain the standard of living they had during the marriage after the divorce. Its existence is based on the theory that one spouse had to give up things to make the marriage work, which puts them at a financial disadvantage. 

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Historically, women gave up years of their lives caring for their husbands and children (and later also may have given up lucrative careers and the raises that come with years of experience to do so). Alimony was an acknowledgment they did their part to achieve that standard of living and deserve to keep it.

These days, spousal maintenance is gender-neutral. Whichever spouse earned more during the marriage might pay alimony to support their ex after divorce. For example, singer and TV host Kelly Clarkson pays alimony to her non-famous (and lower-earning) ex-husband.

Also note that just as each state has its own rules governing marriage and divorce, alimony rules also differ. Some states make alimony an uncommon part of divorce, while others do not. 

Each state uses different criteria, with some allowing the court to consider the couple’s standard of living and fault and others not. A few states, such as Texas, are notoriously difficult to get alimony in. 

How Alimony Works

In many cases, alimony is court-ordered, though you and your ex can work out what’s called “contractual alimony” between yourselves. If the court determines one partner needs alimony, it sets the amount and determines how long the alimony will last.

The court also determines the payment terms, including acceptable payment methods and deadlines. Failure to pay court-ordered alimony can result in criminal or civil charges. 

But alimony isn’t a given just because you make less, and how much you pay or receive depends on state law, not on how much the payee thinks they need.  

Who Gets Alimony

On the surface, alimony looks simple. It’s money paid from one spouse to another after a marriage ends. Generally, the spouse who receives alimony must be significantly less able to provide for themselves at a similar standard of living as when they were married. Having kids isn’t a requirement for alimony, either. Child support is a separate payment. 

But that’s where the simplicity ends. If you dig deeper, you realize alimony isn’t so cut and dried. Judges often award alimony to spouses who were financially dependent on their exes, but what “financially dependent” means varies by state and the judge’s opinion. 

Courts use several factors when deciding who gets alimony and how much. Some factors are objective, while others are subjective, which explains why you sometimes hear stories of wealthy spouses landing substantial alimony payments from their exes or cash-strapped former stay-at-home spouses who get denied alimony. 

But there’s one factor that’s a must-have when deciding who gets alimony: being married. If you’re cohabiting with a partner and you break up, neither one of you has to pay alimony unless you have a written agreement stating that one will support the other financially after a breakup. That’s called “palimony,” and it’s not legal in every state.

A prenuptial agreement can also outline whether one spouse must pay alimony if the marriage dissolves and under what circumstances. 

Your behavior before the divorce also affects your eligibility for alimony. For example, if a spouse can prove the other cheated, the cheating spouse may not get alimony in states that allow for at-fault divorces (which just means the state allows for one person to be blamed for the breakup). Other bad behavior during the marriage, such as drug use, can also make a spouse ineligible for alimony. 

A spouse can get alimony after the divorce is final, even if they didn’t pursue it during the initial proceedings. But they must go back to court to demonstrate they need financial support, which can be tricky to do and might not be possible in all states. Also, the spouse must demonstrate a life change they couldn’t have anticipated during the divorce proceedings.

Once one spouse gets alimony, it usually doesn’t last forever. Death or remarriage brings it to an end. The court can also decide that alimony is no longer necessary, such as when the receiving spouse lands a job that allows them to be financially independent. 

How Alimony Is Calculated

Alimony calculations vary by state and divorce case. Marriage length, income, assets, and earnings potential can play a role in the calculation. 

Some states, like New York, use a mathematical formula to determine an alimony award. The formula uses each partner’s income to decide how much the payer needs to give the receiving spouse. Even with the formula, judges have some leeway when determining the total amount of support.

A family court judge or mediator examines several aspects of a married couple’s relationship and financial situation to decide who gets alimony, how much, and for how long. The aspects they examine include:

  • The Length of the Marriage. Often, the longer a couple has been married, the more likely one partner is to receive alimony. In some states, marriage length determines how long it lasts. For example, in Massachusetts, a court can only require alimony payments for up to 50% of the length of a marriage lasting less than five years. The percentage increases the longer a couple is married.
  • The Spouses’ Earning Power.Judges examine how much the receiving spouse can potentially earn when deciding whether and how much the payer needs to contribute for support. Spouses that earn substantially more than their exes often have to pay alimony, but the judge also considers the earnings potential of the lower earner. For example, say both spouses are surgeons, but only one worked for pay outside the home during the marriage. The stay-at-home spouse can earn a high salary if they start working as a surgeon again, which affects their ability to receive alimony.
  • Each Spouse’s Assets and Debts. If one spouse has a lot more property than the other, the spouse with fewer assets or more debts can get alimony, particularly if they can’t meet their needs on their own. Those assets and debts may change the amount of alimony calculated. 
  • Monthly Expenses and Standard of Living. The couple’s standard of living during marriage and their expected monthly expenses also determine the amount of alimony paid. It can be a subjective measure, but generally, a court will give alimony to a spouse to allow them to live as they’re used to living, even after divorce.
  • The Spouse’s Ability to Pay Alimony. Whether one spouse can afford to pay alimony also plays a part.
  • The Length of Time and Training an Ex Needs to Be Self-Sufficient. If one spouse didn’t work outside the home or left a paying position to care for children or the home, they might need time to finish a degree or job-training program before they can earn enough to support themselves. The judge keeps that in mind when deciding whether to award alimony and how much.
  • The Opportunity Cost of the Marriage. Sometimes, marriage requires one spouse to give up a dream and take a less prestigious or high-paying job so the other spouse can pursue a high-earning or well-respected career. A judge can decide that one spouse made a significant sacrifice additional training won’t rectify for the other and can require the other to pay alimony. 
  • Age and Health of Each Person. Whether a person is in good physical, mental, and emotional health affects their ability to get alimony. The spouses’ ages also play a role.

If all that left you more confused than informed, you’re not alone. Much of it is subjective and depends on state laws and a judge’s disposition as much as the facts of the case.

An alimony calculator gives you a very rough idea of how much you can expect to pay or receive and for how long. This one gives you the low-end amount (Virginia formula) and high-end amount (Massachusetts formula) and approximates the number of years you’ll have to pay. It gives you the low end (Texas) and high end (California) for that too. It’s a wide range, but knowing how your laws compare to the low- and high-end states is helpful for narrowing it down.

If you and your spouse are getting along during the divorce, you might agree to an amount of financial support without a court order or judge’s intervention. In that case, you can agree to an amount together without having to run through several complex calculations or drag as much of your personal life through a court. 

Doing it on your own saves you a lot of time and hassle. Put the agreement in writing so you have something to fall back on if the receiving spouse has to take the paying spouse to court for reneging on the deal. Working with a mediator gives you a greater likelihood of success, but you should both have legal representation too.

A potential downside of negotiating alimony directly with your spouse is that you could agree on an amount that’s either more or less than the court would award. That’s only a problem if the receiving spouse doesn’t get enough when they could or the paying spouse is overburdened unnecessarily.

Penalties for Failure to Pay Alimony

Whether court-ordered or mutually agreed upon, things can get pretty nasty for delinquent payees if they don’t pay up. 

The exact penalties vary by state but can range from being found in contempt of court to arrest. A court might also garnish the paying spouse’s wages or seize their assets.

There are many reasons someone might struggle to make payments, including illness and financial struggles. If you need to pay alimony but can’t, talk to your lawyer to learn about your options. 

If you’re supposed to get alimony and your ex isn’t paying up, consult an attorney. They can explain your options and whether you need to bring your ex to court. But definitely consult an attorney first. Jailed exes don’t pay alimony, either.

Types of Alimony

There are many different types of alimony suitable for different circumstances. Depending on your situation, you might receive or need to pay one or more alimony types when you get divorced.

  • Temporary Alimony. The lower-earning spouse can receive temporary support while the divorce is ongoing. Temporary support covers the costs of the divorce and daily living expenses. Once the divorce decree is issued, temporary support ends.
  • Permanent Alimony. Permanent alimony can last for the rest of either spouse’s life, though it usually doesn’t. The support ends when the receiving spouse remarries or enters into a long-term, cohabiting relationship with another person. In some states, the length of the marriage determines the length of permanent alimony.
  • Rehabilitative Alimony. If one spouse needs job training or more education to increase their earning potential, the court may order the other spouse to pay rehabilitative alimony for the duration of the training program. The payments support the receiving spouse while they’re in school and can’t earn income. Payments stop once the other spouse can support themselves.
  • Reimbursement Alimony. In some marriages, a spouse works to support the household while the other goes to school to earn an advanced degree. The assumption is that the couple will benefit from the other’s higher earning potential once they finish training. If the couple divorces, a court might award reimbursement alimony to compensate the spouse who worked while the other was in school.
  • Contractual Alimony. Contractual alimony is spousal support you agree to with your ex without family court getting involved. 

Whatever the type of alimony, the receiving spouse can either get a lump-sum payment or monthly payments, depending on the court’s orders. With a monthly payment, the receiving spouse has a steady income stream provided their ex pays up. 

With a lump sum, they receive the full amount of alimony all at once, which can be beneficial if they need to buy a house or another large purchase.

Alimony FAQs

Alimony is complicated. While the nuances vary from state to state, the answers to basic questions remain the same no matter where you get divorced.

What’s the Difference Between Alimony & Spousal Support?

Spousal support and alimony mean the same thing. Spousal maintenance is another term for alimony. Alimony is an older term, meaning you’re more likely to see spousal support or maintenance used by a court or divorce attorney. 

Whether the court uses spousal support or spousal maintenance depends on the state. 

What’s the Difference Between Alimony & Child Support?

The big difference between alimony and child support is who the payments benefit. Child support payments help provide for a child’s needs, including food, clothing, shelter, education, and travel costs. Alimony payments support the spouse.

You must have been married to qualify for alimony. That’s not a requirement to get the court to order child support. 

How Is Alimony Taxed?

Whether you have to pay tax on alimony payments depends on when you finalized your divorce. 

  • On or Before Dec. 31, 2018: The IRS expects recipients to pay income tax on any alimony payments they receive. The payer can deduct the value of alimony from their taxable income.
  • After Dec. 31, 2018: Recipients don’t have to include money received from alimony payments as part of their taxable income. Likewise, the payer can’t deduct alimony payments.

How Can I Avoid Paying Alimony?

Alimony isn’t part of every divorce. If you and your spouse earn about the same amount, it’s highly unlikely a judge will require one of you to financially support the other. 

Creating a prenuptial agreement with your spouse can also help you avoid having to pay alimony, but that doesn’t help you if you’re already separating. 

Another option is to have a judge examine your former spouse’s earning potential. If your ex can work full-time and increase their income but simply prefers to work part-time (or not at all), a judge might side with you and determine your spouse has the ability to support themselves. Just be careful that doing so doesn’t increase your child support payments, as it may mean your kids have to be in day care more hours per week.

What Can I Do if My Former Spouse Isn’t Paying Alimony?

If the court has ordered your ex to pay alimony and they stop paying, you have the law on your side. 

But before you pursue legal action, talk to them. Check in and remind them you haven’t received your payments. If they still don’t pay, talk to your attorney to figure out your next steps. 

They can help you file a contempt order with the court. A judge can compel your ex to pay and may seize property or garnish wages to make the payments.

Final Word

Your finances change drastically after a divorce. Alimony can help take the sting out of a changed financial situation for some and exacerbate it for others. If you’re going through a divorce, talk with your attorney about spousal support. 

Your divorce attorney can explain your options or obligations based on your state’s laws. They can also recommend options like working with a mediator. 

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