When couples divorce, courts may require one spouse to make monetary support payments to the other spouse. These payments are known spousal support payments, or alimony payments.  The amount of alimony can either be agreed to by the spouses, or can be decided by a court. Each state has its own laws that govern how alimony payments are set.

How Do Courts Determine the Amount of Alimony Payments?

Courts may determine alimony payments when issuing a divorce decree. Alimony payments provide a steady source of income to a spouse who either does not earn wages, or earns less wages than the other spouse. Alimony is ordered to ensure any unfair economic effects of divorce are minimized.

A family court determines which spouse must make alimony payments. This court also determines the frequency (i.e., weekly, monthly) of these payments, and how long the payments are to be made. Alimony, unlike child support in a number of states, is not set using a formula. Instead, when a court sets alimony payments, the court may look at a variety of factors. 

These factors include:

  • The financial condition of each spouse; 
  • Each spouse’s “earning capacity.” Earning capacity is the amount of earnings a spouse is expected to make based upon that spouse’s education level, special skills, or training. Courts look at several factors when determining earning capacity. Courts look at whether the spouse’s skills are “marketable” (i.e., whether there is a job market for them); 
    • In addition, a court looks at whether a spouse’s earning potential was limited or impaired during the marriage. If, for example, a spouse, instead of pursuing a degree, performed domestic or child-raising duties, or was ill or disabled, courts will consider that limitation as well; 
  • The couple’s “standard of living” while the spouses were married to each other. “Standard of living” is the lifestyle the spouses, when married, were used to. When a court looks at this factor, it examines the monthly expenses incurred by the couple from activities such as vacations, recreation, shopping, and so forth. The court determines whether requiring alimony payments to cover these expenses is “reasonable.”; 
    • For example, a spouse who received a new car every year as part of the marriage, may request that the alimony to be given to them, take such payments into account (i.e, that a court order the other spouse to make payments to allow that spouse to maintain the new-car-every-year lifestyle). When evaluating “standard of living” concerns, courts focus on whether the spouse requesting money to maintain what they enjoyed during the marriage is “reasonable.”; 
    • In evaluating “reasonableness,” a court may look at the current income of the spouse who will be paying the alimony. The court is more likely to award alimony that maintains a standard of living when the paying spouse is a high-income earner and can afford the payments; 
  • How long the spouses were married;
  • Whether the spouse who is to pay alimony, is able to make the payments, while still being capable of supporting themselves;
  • The physical and mental health of each of the spouses;
  • Whether one spouse contributed to the other spouse’s obtaining an educational degree; and
  • Whether either or both spouses committed marital misconduct (such as adultery or bigamy) while married. “Fault” is generally no longer required to obtain a divorce. However, alimony courts courts may a court may look at whether one spouse was at “fault” in bringing the marriage to an end.

A court may hold a non-paying spouse in contempt of court. Contempt of court subjects that person to fines and possibly jail time.

How Long Must Alimony Payments be Made For?

The law does not favor permanent alimony payments. Instead, courts order alimony only for the amount of time for the receiving spouse to become self-sufficient (able to provide for themselves without spousal support). 

In many cases, a divorce decree provides for a date by which alimony payments are to end. In other cases, the decree does not contain a date. In these latter instances, payments will continue until a court orders them to stop.

Even if the spouse paying alimony dies, a court may order alimony to continue. In these cases, the alimony money comes from the deceased spouse’s estate, or proceeds from insurance policies such as life insurance policies.

A court may terminate alimony payments early if the reason for the payments no longer exists. If the spouse receiving the payments remarries, or that spouse’s income increases, a court may find alimony payments are no longer necessary.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Alimony Payments?

If you are seeking alimony payments, making them, or wish to have alimony support payments modified because of change in financial circumstances, you should consult with a family lawyer. An experienced family lawyer near you can advise you of your rights. Your lawyer can also represent you in court during hearings.