Alimony, also known as spousal support, is the regular monetary payment to a spouse during separation, divorce proceedings, or after a divorce decree is issued. Each state has its own rules regarding when alimony may be granted, as well as the amount and duration. Generally, the purpose of alimony is to provide financial assistance to the recipient spouse until he or she becomes self-supporting. Depending on the state, courts can grant permanent alimony (payments are indefinite in duration) in situations where the recipient spouse has no means of gaining financial independence.

What are the Requirements for Alimony or Support?

Alimony is only granted to individuals who were actually and legally married. The factors the court looks at to determine alimony vary from state to state. Often, there is no set formula for determining alimony, and the court can award it to either spouse. Common factors most courts will look at include:

  • Length of the marriage;
  • Fault;
  • Financial circumstances based on property owned (and, if applicable, the income-producing capacity of the property);
  • Income and earning capacity of the spouses; and
  • Physical conditions, such as health, disabilities, and age.

In general, courts will likely look at the financial needs and circumstances of the spouse requesting support, and whether the paying spouse can afford the support payments. 

Short marriages

The court assumes that you have kept the same ability to support yourself that you had before marriage. Each spouse is expected to be substantially independent and self-supporting within a short period of time.

Long marriages (generally over 5 years)

For long marriages, extended or even lifetime support may be ordered. The court takes into consideration a variety of factors such as:

  • Each spouse's assumed earning capacity;
  • The property and debts received by each spouse;
  • The physical and mental health of the receiving spouse;
  • Any disparity in earning capacity between the spouses;
  • Duration of marriage;
  • Other income;
  • Contribution to career or education; and/or 
  • Contribution as a homemaker.

What are the Different Types of Alimony or Spousal Support?

There are several types of alimony, depending on the state:

  • Temporary Spousal Support: Once a divorce action is filed, a court can order temporary spousal support for the duration of the divorce proceedings. This ensures that the recipient spouse is able to afford the costs of the divorce suit and meet his or her financial needs while the divorce is pending.
  • Permanent Alimony: Payments are indefinite in duration and may be granted in situations where the recipient spouse has no means of gaining financial independence.
  • Rehabilitative Alimony: This involves payments made while a spouse is acquiring the education, training, and experience necessary to become self-sustaining. 
  • Reimbursement Alimony: This seeks to reimburse the recipient spouse based on circumstances during the marriage.
  • Periodic versus Lump Sum Alimony: “Periodic alimony” involves ongoing payments, whereas “lump-sum alimony” is a fixed amount paid once.

Can Support Be Modified or Terminated?

Yes. The court will look to see if there is a substantial change in the circumstances of one or both spouses, and courts are given wide discretion in determining this. Additionally, the type of spousal support plays a factor in whether termination or modification is warranted. For example, reimbursement alimony, depending on the state, may not be terminable or modifiable even though one or both spouses have changed circumstances. Further, because an award of rehabilitative alimony is short in duration and serves a specific purpose, it may not be affected even if the recipient spouse remarries.

Payment obligations will generally end with the death of either spouse or remarriage of the recipient spouse. Circumstances that can lead to modification (or termination) include:

  • The paying spouse being laid off or retired;
  • The recipient spouse has a substantial increase in income; or
  • The recipient spouse lives with another person romantically.

In the case of cohabitation, a court may not automatically modify or terminate alimony, as it may consider whether the living situation looks like a marriage and if the recipient spouse is indeed gaining financially.

For more information on the different ways alimony can be modified or terminated, see the article “Terminating Alimony.”

Record Keeping

Always keep accurate and detailed records if you receive or make any payments and make sure you keep these records for at least 3 years. Doing so will allow you to protect your interests should there ever be a dispute.

Calculating Child Support

In many states, there are defined guidelines or equations that determine the amount of child support that should be paid based on the incomes of the parents or custodial adults and the number of children supported - each of these factors is used to determine the amount of child support payments that should be paid. The guidelines differ from state to state, but the determination methodology is generally the same is cover in this article Child Support Amount Calculations. LegalMatch also has many state-specific articles, including:

Do I Need an Attorney?

Whenever spousal support arrangements are at issue, you should consult a family law attorney that specializes in divorce. A family lawyer will not only inform you of your rights but also preserve any possible legal remedies that you may have.