Alimony, sometimes referred to as “spousal support,” is typically defined as a recurring payment that is made from one spouse to another spouse each month in the event of a divorce. In some states, alimony may also be awarded when a couple is legally separated or a petition for divorce is pending.

When a married couple files for divorce, there are a number of factors that a court may consider in determining whether to award alimony, and if so, the amount of alimony and how long alimony payments should be made to the recipient spouse. However, each state has its own laws regarding alimony payments and some state laws even provide explicit factors that a court must take into account when awarding alimony in a divorce case.

Each state also has laws that provide when alimony payments may be terminated or modified. For instance, most states recognize the rule that alimony payments can be terminated when the spouse receiving alimony dies.

Another general principle that many states follow regarding alimony payments is that the spouse who is better situated financially is usually the spouse that is ordered to pay alimony. This is because alimony is meant to provide support for a spouse who was financially dependent on their spouse throughout the duration of the couple’s marriage.

Alimony payments will thus be made for as long as necessary and until the receiving spouse’s financial circumstances change. To learn more about alimony payments in your state and/or to find out whether you are eligible to collect alimony, you should speak to a local family law attorney or divorce lawyer who practices in your area. They can give you legal advice that specifically pertains to your alimony or divorce issue.

How Do Courts Determine the Amount of Alimony Payments?

The way in which a court determines the amount of alimony payments will depend on several conditions. For instance, the laws in each state may provide certain factors that a court must use in order to award alimony. Some states even have laws that offer a set formula to help courts and divorcing parties to determine how much alimony should be awarded.

On the other hand, some states offer no guidance on how to determine or calculate alimony. In such states, the decision will be left up to the discretion of the court, or more likely, the judge presiding over the couples’ divorce case.

Another factor that may be affected by the law in a particular state is the timing of when a petition for alimony is filed. For example, some states require that the petitioning spouse prove different elements based on when they file an alimony petition (e.g., before, during, or after a divorce).

Divorcing couples may also come to an agreement before the court issues the award. This would involve both parties attending a mediation conference or some other form of negotiation and settling all alimony issues before they attend their scheduled divorce hearing.

Some other factors that many courts may use to determine eligibility for and to calculate alimony payments include the following:

  • The financial status or condition of each spouse (e.g., whether they can afford to pay alimony, whether they are able to support themselves without additional funds, etc.).
  • The length of the divorcing couple’s marriage (note that this can affect the amount of alimony that a spouse may collect in some states).
  • The age, the physical health, and the mental well-being of each of the spouses.
  • Whether the petitioning spouse has sacrificed anything to support the other spouse’s career ambitions (e.g., their own career, education, money while their spouse got a degree, etc.).
  • If only one of the spouse’s is going to have full or physical custody (note child support will be awarded to care for the children, but this may be taken into account when awarding alimony as well).
  • The earning capacity of each of the spouses. The term “earning capacity” is defined as the amount of income that a spouse is expected to make based on their level of education, job training, and/or any special skills that they possess. Courts will analyze this issue even further by dividing it into specific factors, such as:
    • Whether a spouse’s skills would make them a “marketable” job candidate;
    • If there is a job market for their particular skills or if it is obsolete;
    • Whether the spouse requires additional schooling or training that they would not be able to get without financial support; and
    • Various other factors that a court would find fair and appropriate given the circumstances.
    • In addition, this is where the court may also consider whether a spouse’s earning potential was limited due to having to raise children, take care of the household, or falling ill.
  • The couple’s standard of living or their lifestyle during the marriage is another factor that is evaluated in many states. When a judge examines this particular element, they will usually review the couple’s monthly expenses, such as those incurred by family activities like shopping, vacations, recreational events, and so on. The court will then consider if ordering alimony to cover such payments would be reasonable.
    • In looking at the couple’s standard of living or lifestyle, a judge will focus on the question of whether it would be reasonable to award alimony to the petitioning spouse just to maintain the lifestyle they had during their marriage, as opposed to alimony to pay for necessities like food and rent.
    • In evaluating “reasonableness,” the court will usually review the current income of the supporting spouse. Generally speaking, a judge is more likely to award alimony that maintains the couple’s standard of living if the supporting spouse would be able to afford it and if they are a high-income earner.
      • For example, a spouse who is used to receiving a new car every year during their marriage may request that the court include this expense as part of their total alimony award. In other words, the petitioning spouse would ask the court to order the supporting spouse to pay alimony that would enable them to continue purchasing a new car every year.

In addition, it is important to note that spouses who violate an order for alimony may be held in contempt of court by a judge. In such a scenario, the spouse being held in contempt of court can be fined and may possibly receive a jail sentence.

How Long Must Alimony Payments be Made For?

As previously mentioned, alimony is meant to last for as long as it takes the receiving spouse to gain financial independence. In general, the law did not intend for alimony payments to last indefinitely, which is why certain conditions may terminate existing spousal support. For example, if the recipient spouse dies or gets remarried, the supporting spouse may petition the court to modify or terminate the order for alimony.

Depending on the laws of a state and the specific facts of a divorce case, alimony payments can last anywhere from a lifetime to only a couple of months. The length of time for alimony payments will be contingent on a number of factors, such as:

  • The ability for the supporting spouse to both financially support themselves and simultaneously continue paying alimony to the receiving spouse;
  • The date provided in the couples’ divorce decree for when alimony is supposed to end (if there is one);
  • If the receiving spouse experiences a change in circumstances (e.g., they get a job that enables them to support themselves); and/or
  • Whether a state has passed laws that specify the period in which a supporting spouse will need to pay alimony. For instance, in Delaware state, a supporting spouse will only need to pay the receiving spouse for half the amount of time the parties were married if their marriage lasted for less than twenty years.

As is evident from the above information, the amount of time that alimony payments will be made for is largely contingent on individual state laws and the facts of each divorce case. There are too many variables and rules that can affect the duration of alimony for there to be a straight answer without reviewing the facts of a particular case. Therefore, it may be in a petitioning spouse’s best interest to speak to a local family lawyer about how long they can collect alimony.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help With Alimony Payments?

Alimony payments are highly fact-specific and will depend on you and your spouse’s financial circumstances. Thus, you may want to consider consulting with a local family lawyer if you need to request, modify, or terminate alimony payments.

An experienced family lawyer will be able to assist you in completing any of these tasks as well as can provide legal advice that is specific to your alimony and/or divorce matter. Your lawyer can also inform you of your rights and protections concerning alimony payments under the laws in your jurisdiction. In addition, your lawyer can help you recover outstanding alimony that you may be owed by your ex-spouse.

Finally, if there is a dispute over alimony payments, your lawyer will be able to provide representation in court or at any other type of legal proceeding related to the matter.