Spousal support refers to financial payments made to one spouse by the other in the event of a legal separation or divorce. The amount of these payments is determined by several factors that consider the financial ability of one spouse to pay a specified amount to the other spouse. 

In general, spousal support may be required when one party is more financially stable than the other, or when one party has contributed to the relationship in specific ways, such as:

  • Refraining from being employed in order to act as homemaker;
  • Providing career and/or educational advancements, instead of income; or
  • Contributing property but not income to the relationship.

Alimony and spousal support are two words that mean the same thing, that is the terms are used interchangeably due to the negative connotation that the term “alimony” carries. Spousal support may be ordered so that one spouse can maintain the same lifestyle they had before the divorce, or to allow the spouse sufficient time to be able to gain financial independence. 

One common example of court ordered spousal support is support awarded to a spouse that left their job to be the primary homemaker or caregiver, while the other spouse provided for the financial needs of the family. In such a case, a court may order spousal support until the spouse who left their job can regain financial independence and earn a living on their own. 

What are Some Differences Among States Concerning Permanent Spousal Support?

State laws will vary in regards to spousal support terms, and each case seeking spousal support will be evaluated separately on an individual basis. As previously mentioned, spousal support is mainly awarded to the spouse who makes less money, or is unable to support themselves immediately because they were the stay-at-home spouse in the relationship. 

Spousal support may be permanent or temporary, depending on the specific circumstances. Once the spouse is back on their feet, spousal support is generally terminated. However, alimony may be paid until some life changing event occurs, such as the death or remarriage of the spouse; this is what is referred to as permanent spousal support. Temporary spousal support may also be awarded, which is spousal support that is paid when the couple separates, but the divorce is not yet final.

Recently, the majority of states have cut back greatly on granting permanent spousal support. As of 2018, the states that may still grant permanent alimony are New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont, North Carolina, West Virginia, Florida, and Oregon. 

Permanent spousal support is generally reserved for spouses who are disabled or seriously ill, and therefore cannot work to support themselves. Judges that award permanent spousal support consider the length of the marriage, one spouse’s contribution to the career or lifestyle of the other spouse, and any especially significant financial inequality.

Traditionally, states would limit or prohibit spousal support if the spouse that needed financial support was somehow at fault in the separation or divorce. However, with the creation of no fault divorce, where there is no need to prove any wrongdoing or fault on behalf of either party in order to get a divorce, more than half of the nation’s states do not take fault into consideration when awarding spousal support. Some states consider behavior such as adultery, abandonment, and marital misconduct as grounds for limiting or prohibiting spousal support.

To find out if your state is one of those states, you should contact a divorce lawyer who will be able to explain all of the details of your state’s law. 

What Else Should I Know About Spousal Support?

Spousal support is only intended to cover basic provisions that are required by the ex spouse to get back on their feet after the separation and/or divorce. Such expenses include food, clothing, housing, and basic travel (gas, auto insurance, etc). 

Not all divorces involve spousal support, especially if both spouses have stable incomes and are capable of covering their own basic needs. Only ten to fifteen percent of all divorces include spousal support as part of the divorce decree.

As noted above, spousal support is not commonly permanent. Below are some examples of when spousal support may end include:

  • When the terms set forth in the spousal support order are met;
  • The terms set forth in the prenuptial agreement are met;
  • When one spouse is deemed to be incapable or unable to make payments;
  • When the recipient spouse has reached financial independence;
  • The spouse receiving alimony remarries; or
  • Cohabitation with a new partner.

If you would like the court to modify a spousal support order, then you will need to begin by petitioning the court for a modification. Be prepared to show that you are entitled to the modification based on some substantial change in circumstances, such as being laid off or retired, or becoming disabled.

Should I Hire a Divorce Lawyer If I Have a Question About Spousal Support?

First, if you have been ordered to pay spousal support, it is imperative that you make any court ordered payments in accordance with your payment schedule. Further, not only do the laws governing spousal support differ from state to state, these laws also change over time based on other aspects of family law. In order to ensure that you are fully aware of your state’s laws, and to avoid any legal penalties for failing to make spousal support payments on time, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable divorce lawyer. Alternatively, if you believe you should receive spousal support, a family law attorney will be able to represent you in your case and ensure you receive a fair amount in accordance with your specific circumstances.