Alimony Definition

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 What Is Alimony?

Many states define “alimony” as a court-ordered payment made by one ex-spouse to the other, usually the one that is in financial need. Courts may also grant temporary spousal support while a divorce is pending. The judge’s intent in awarding alimony is to equalize the financial resources of a divorcing couple.

When deciding whether to award alimony, a judge will determine whether one spouse has a demonstrated financial need and if the other spouse has the financial ability to pay. Judges generally award alimony in cases where the spouses have unequal earning power and have been married for a long period.

For instance, a judge is not likely to grant alimony if the couple has been married for only a year. Some state laws permit alimony awards only when the couple has been married for a certain amount of time.

How Does Alimony Work?

Although judges have to abide by state law in deciding whether alimony is appropriate, they still have a generous amount of discretion in deciding when and how someone has to pay it. As mentioned earlier, an alimony award can be temporary—to support a spouse only while the divorce is pending—or a permanent award that is part of a divorce decree.

Alimony payments can be in the form of:

  • A lump-sum payment;
  • A property transfer; or
  • Periodic (monthly) payments.

Typically, lump-sum alimony awards and alimony in the form of a property transfer are non-modifiable, meaning they cannot be changed later and cannot be terminated or undone. Furthermore, periodic alimony payments may be adjusted when there is a significant change in one or both of the spouses’ situations. Periodic alimony awards are known to be the most common and require one spouse to pay a certain amount to the other (the “supported” or “dependent” spouse) each month.

A periodic or monthly alimony award will end on a date set by the judge, or when one of the following events takes place:

  • The supported spouse remarries;
  • The supported spouse moves in with another person;
  • Either spouse passes away; or
  • A significant event happens (like a paying spouse’s retirement or a supported spouse’s new high-paying job) and a judge determines that alimony is no longer necessary.

As with most issues in your divorce, you and your spouse can negotiate and reach an agreement on your terms. This can include the amount of alimony and the length of time it will be paid. However, if you both cannot agree to an amount or duration, you will need to file a formal motion request to a court to decide alimony.

Then, the court will schedule a hearing where both sides will be able to present their positions regarding alimony. After considering the arguments and evidence presented at the hearing, the judge will issue an order accordingly.

How Do Courts Decide on Alimony?

Each state has its guidelines on what judges should consider when deciding whether to grant alimony. Most states require judges to evaluate the following factors:

  • How property is being divided in the divorce;
  • The standard of living during the marriage;
  • The supported spouse’s ability to maintain a similar lifestyle without support;
  • Each spouse’s income, assets, and debts;
  • The length of the marriage;
  • Each spouse’s age and health;
  • Contributions that either spouse made to the other’s training, education, or career advancement, and;
  • Any other factors the judge thinks are relevant.

If you are the spouse seeking support, the court will closely examine your current income or ability to earn if you are not currently employed. When the supported spouse has been out of the workforce or has been underemployed for an extended amount of time, the judge is more likely to award support for at least as long as it will take the supported spouse to become independent.

For instance, if one spouse is trained as a doctor but took several years off to care for children and support the other spouse’s career, a judge will consider the medically trained spouse’s future earning potential. In other words, perhaps that spouse needs initial support to re-enter the workforce but maybe not a long-term alimony award.

Both spouses might need to make some life and work changes after divorce. For example, a judge might require a spouse who has a low-paying part-time job to try to seek full-time employment in a higher-paying field. Sometimes, a judge will order that an expert called a “vocational evaluator” submit a report to the judge on the job prospects for a spouse who has not been fully employed for a while. Usually, the evaluator will conduct vocational tests and then compare the spouse’s qualifications with potential employers or open job positions in the area to estimate how much income the spouse could earn.

What is the Duration for Alimony?

How much alimony a spouse must pay, and for how long they must pay it, depends mostly on the duration of the marriage and current and future potential incomes for both spouses. However, if a couple separates or divorces after 10 years, alimony is typically awarded unless both spouses have the same earning power. If their earning power is not equal, the lower-earning spouse will likely receive alimony payments.

Keep in mind that not all marriages will automatically result in alimony payments. For instance, alimony payments may not be issued if both spouses have similar annual incomes or if the marriage is fairly new. Therefore, it is important to check the local state regulations regarding alimony and what the circumstances of each marriage are.

What are the Different Types of Alimony?

The different types of alimony available can differ from state to state. In California, for example, there are five which include the following:

  • Temporary alimony: Paid while the divorce is pending, this can consist of divorce costs and daily expenses, and it ceases when the divorce is finalized;
  • Permanent alimony: Paid every month, this continues until the death of either spouse or the remarriage of the lower-earning spouse;
  • Rehabilitative alimony: Paid while the lower-earning spouse attempts to increase their employment chances through education or training or while on an employment search, it ceases either after a fixed period or when the payee becomes self-supporting;
  • Reimbursement alimony: Paid to reimburse a lower-earning spouse for expenses such as tuition or work training, it is not ongoing and;
  • Lump-sum alimony: Paid instead of a property settlement, this is ordered when one spouse does not want any property or items of value from their marital assets.

As shown by the alimony types above, the termination of alimony is flexible and open to negotiation. Other situations that might serve as sufficient reason to stop payments include retirement, children no longer requiring the care of a parent, and a judge’s decision that a recipient is not making a good-faith effort to become self-sufficient.

What To Do When Court-Ordered Alimony Is Not Being Paid

There are many options to embark on when the other party believes they discovered how to get out of alimony. Understanding alimony non-payment is complicated and will require a consultation with an alimony lawyer to determine the best path to get your alimony received as court-ordered.

When Do I Need to Contact a Lawyer?

If you need assistance with alimony in your state it is recommended that you reach out to your local state family attorney to guide you through. Alimony can be complicated and is judged on a case-by-case basis.

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