When spouses divorce or separate, a family court may order one spouse to make what the law calls alimony, or spousal support payments to the other spouse. The purpose of such payments is to lessen the impact of any unfair economic consequences of divorce. Generally, spousal support requirements are only required for as long as they are needed to make the spouse receiving them self-sufficient. The amount and duration of payments are set forth in an order issued by a family court judge.
Generally, courts will order spousal support when:
- One spouse is disabled or has a medical issue that interferes with their ability to support themselves;
- The imbalance in income and earning potential between the spouses is significant;
- One of the spouses was not receiving income because they were raising one or more children while the other spouse was earning income; and
- One spouse spent money to help the other achieve higher income potential. (This may happen when a spouse pays for the other spouse’s professional or other advanced degree).
The law permits early termination of spousal support under certain conditions. These conditions include:
- The spouse receiving support is cohabiting with another person. Cohabitation is defined as a sexual relationship between a couple that reside together but are not married. State laws differ on whether cohabitation terminates alimony;
- Many state laws permit alimony to be terminated or reduced, but only if cohabiting results in the receiving spouse’s no longer needing support.
- Other states have laws requiring that alimony terminate when there is cohabitation. In these states, alimony payments can be terminated even if the receiving spouse is still not economically self-sufficient.
- In some other states, a receiving spouse’s cohabiting has no effect on the alimony payments they receive.
- The death of the spouse receiving the payments;
- The spouse receiving support remarries;
- Normally, alimony terminates when the spouse receiving it remarries. However, this is not always the case. Certain state laws permit alimony payments to continue even after remarriage, in the absence of a spousal support agreement order that states otherwise.
- The income or earnings of the spouse receiving support has increased, to the point where that spouse is self-sufficient;
- In some instances, a court may terminate spousal support if the court finds that the recipient has failed to make efforts to become self-supporting.
- The spouse providing payments will experience economic hardship by continuing to make the payments; and
- The paying spouse retires. Factors a court looks at when deciding to terminate alimony because of retirement include:
- The nature of the retirement (whether it is voluntary or involuntary).
- Each spouse’s overall health and age.
- How much, and for how long, spousal support has already been paid.
- Whether the retirement will bring about a change in either spouse’s income level.
- The amount of property and assets each party has between the date the support order was signed through the date the judge hears arguments on whether to terminate support.
For payment obligations to terminate, the paying spouse must obtain court approval. A paying spouse who wants payments to terminate files what is known as a petition for termination of spousal support with the court. The petition is a formal request that the court terminate the spousal support order.
The following documents must accompany the petition:
- A statement of income and expenses. In this document, the paying spouse discloses their current sources of income and how much income is earned from each source. The spouse also lists the type and amount of their expenses; and
- An explanation as to why the spousal support order should be terminated.
The family court judge and the other spouse each receive a copy of these documents. The court then sets a date for a hearing on the petition. At the hearing, the court hears arguments and receives evidence why the support order should or should not terminate.
The court will then issue a decision based on the arguments and evidence. The court may decide to grant the petition. This means the support order will terminate and the paying spouse will no longer be required to make the payments. Alternatively, the court may deny the request made in the petition. This means that the paying spouse must continue to make the alimony payments as they were before. Finally, the court may decide to modify the support order, by reducing the amount of support to be paid.
If you are disputing the length of spousal support payments with your former spouse, you should contact a family law attorney in your area. A local family attorney can explain your rights and options. If needed, the attorney can also represent you in court.