Alimony, also referred to as spousal support or spousal maintenance, may be granted in connection with a divorce when a spouse demonstrates that they need financial assistance, and the other spouse can provide it. The gender of each spouse plays no relevance in making this decision. Typically, the majority of states provide a statutory list of factors that a judge must examine, although state law often gives a judge’s discretion to consider any other factor that may deem just.

Commonly utilized factors includeL the duration of the marriage, the income and earning capacity of each spouse, the debts and assets of each spouse, the age and health of each spouse, and contributions by either spouse to the education or career of the other spouse.

However, other aspects of the determination may be more subjective. For instance, courts in most states consider the standard of living that the spouses had during the marriage. This may account not only for basic necessities, such as clothing, food, and housing, but also include non-essential luxuries that affect the quality of life.

Keep in mind that many states consider fault in awarding alimony, or the contribution of either spouse causing the divorce. Suppose a marriage in one of those states fails due to misconduct by a spouse. This may change the amount of alimony that they pay or receive. In some states, however, a court will consider whether the recipient spouse has custody of any children, which may depend on their eligibility for alimony or increased payments.

Traditionally, alimony often was granted permanently or indefinitely, but it has become less common. Courts across the U.S. have moved toward an approach that views alimony as a means to assist the recipient spouse to become financially self-sufficient. This generally implies that alimony is awarded temporarily for a set time in order that the recipient spouse can find a job or get the education or training that they need in order to pursue a career.

But, permanent alimony still may be granted in some situations in which a spouse may not have an opportunity to rejoin the workforce, often due to advanced age or a serious medical condition. A divorce may not be finalized for a long time, especially if it is contested. A court also may order alimony while it is pending if a spouse needs assistance immediately to meet their basic needs.

How to Enforce Spousal Support Across State Lines?

When marriages terminate, ex-spouses often obtain a fresh start by relocating to different states, which can lead to obstacles when the relocating spouse falls behind on their spousal support obligation. To mitigate this issue, the federal government enacted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act to streamline the ways in which states address the enforcement of foreign spousal support orders.

Under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, an obligee spouse (the person to whom the support is owed) may register the spousal support order in the obligor’s state and county of residence. Keep in mind that the court administering the spousal support order had proper jurisdiction over the parties, the recipient court must fully honor the order. Procedurally, the obligee spouse should first seek out a family law attorney in the state and county to which the obligor has relocated.

That attorney may then register the spousal support order in the correct court and it would be enforceable as if it were that state’s own court order. Enforcement mechanisms vary in each state, but typically include suspending the obligor’s driver’s license, garnishing the obligor’s wages, levying on the obligor’s personal property, or possibly incarceration.

However, under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, the obligee or obligor spouse could not request the relocating state’s court to change the original spousal support order. The state that established the spousal support order would retain jurisdiction to modify (reduce, extend, terminate, increase) the spousal support order.

How is the Amount of Alimony Determined?

Unlike child support, which in most states is required according to detailed monetary guidelines, courts have broad discretion in determining whether to grant spousal support. Courts also decide how much and for how long. The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act is what many states’ spousal support statutes are based on.

It suggests that courts consider the following factors in making decisions about alimony awards in general:

  • 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.

Although awards may be hard to approximate, whether the payer spouse will comply with a support order is even harder to gauge. Alimony enforcement is different from child support enforcement, which has the “teeth” of wage garnishment, liens, and other enforcement mechanisms.

An action the recipient could undertake is to return to court in a contempt proceeding to force payment. Because alimony can be granted with a court order, the mechanisms available for enforcing any court order are available to a former spouse who owns alimony.

How Long Must Alimony Be Paid?

Alimony is often considered “rehabilitative,” meaning it is ordered for a time period 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 commence if the recipient remarries. Termination upon the payer’s death is not necessarily automatic in some cases where the recipient spouse is unlikely to obtain 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.

In the past, the majority of the alimony awards provided for payments to former wives by breadwinning former husbands. As the culture has transformed, now most marriages include two wage earners, women are not necessarily viewed as less dependent, and men are more apt to be primary parents. The courts and spousal support awards have been updated. Therefore, the tradition of men paying and women receiving spousal support does not automatically apply in all cases as a blanket rule.

Additionally, the 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 allows alimony orders in same-sex divorce cases where partners with higher earnings will be required to pay alimony to a dependent same-sex spouse.

When Do I Need to Contact a Lawyer?

If you are a spouse paying alimony or spousal support you may need to look to the local state guidelines to understand what your legal obligations are. However, if you are the spouse on the receiving end it is important to know your rights to ensure you are getting the necessary support needed for your living situation.

Furthermore, it will be useful to seek out a local state family attorney to assist you in the process. This is especially because the regulations on alimony vary from state to state.