The majority of the states define spousal support as payments made by one spouse to the other. It is also known as “alimony” or “spousal maintenance.” A spousal support award can be temporary while a divorce is pending, or it can become a permanent award and be included in the divorce decree. Alimony payments are meant to equally divide the financial resources of a divorcing couple. A judge will essentially assess if one spouse has a demonstrated financial need and if the other spouse has the ability to pay the payments.

Alimony is usually granted in cases where the spouses have unequal earning power and have been married a long time. For instance, a judge is not likely to award alimony if the couple has only been married for a year. Some state laws prohibit spousal support awards unless the couple has been married for a certain amount of time. Therefore, the duration of the marriage is crucial in some cases.

How Is the Amount of Alimony Determined?

Unlike child support, which in most states is required according to very specific monetary guidelines, courts have a broader discretion in determining whether to grant spousal support.

The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, on which many states’ spousal support statutes are based, suggests that courts consider the following factors in making decisions about spousal support awards:

  • The age, physical condition, emotional state, and financial condition of the former spouses;
  • The length of time the recipient may 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.

How Does Alimony Operate?

There are different types of alimony payments that can be ordered by the court. For instance, if an alimony is ordered by the court, it can be in the form of a lump-sum payment, a property transfer, or periodic monthly payments. Periodic alimony awards are the most common and require one spouse to pay a certain amount to the other each month. The other spouse is usually the one that does not earn or is the spouse that needs to be financially supported.

Next, the lump-sum alimony awards and alimony in the form of a property transfer are generally non-modifiable, meaning they cannot be changed later and cannot be terminated or undone.

For a periodic or monthly alimony award there will be an end date set by the judge, or it may terminate when one of the following events occurs:

  • The supported spouse remarries;
  • The supported spouse cohabitates;
  • Either spouse dies or;
  • A significant event occurs (paying spouse’s retirement) such that a judge determines that alimony is no longer necessary.

As with many issues in your divorce, you and your spouse can reach an agreement about the amount and length of time the alimony will be paid. But if you are unable to agree, you will need to file a formal notice with a court requesting alimony. After reviewing your case, the court will schedule a hearing and after the hearing, a judge will set the conditions for you. It is important to keep in mind that completing an alimony hearing or trial will be costly for you in terms of time and money.

What Are the Divorce Alimony Rules?

If you are the spouse requesting the support, the question of whether you qualify for alimony is usually determined by taking into account your own income or ability to earn if you are not currently employed. However, this is not necessarily what you are earning at the time you go to court, but it represents your earning potential.

For instance, if one spouse is trained as a medical doctor but took several years off to care for children and support the other spouse’s career, a judge will examine that spouse’s future earning potential. The spouse may need initial support to reenter the workforce, but not a long-term alimony award.

Following a divorce, you may also be required to make some changes in your life and work. For instance, if you have a part-time job that does not pay well, you may be required to attempt to find full-time employment in a higher-paying field. Courts can hire reporters to ensure that there is a good faith employment search and what the earning capacity of that spouse would be in the workforce.

How Do I Enforce an Alimony Award?

A spouse who is ordered to pay alimony in a divorce will need to make the payments when they are due. Alimony starts as soon as a divorce order requiring it is signed by the judge. A spouse who fails to make the required alimony payments can be held in contempt of court. This means the supported spouse can file a show cause action with the court against the spouse refusing to make alimony payments.

The court will set a hearing to determine the reason for payment delinquencies. Family law courts have various tools from their resources to enforce alimony payments. Therefore, the spouse not making the payments in accordance with the divorce decree could face fines and penalties.

How Do I Terminate an Alimony Award?

Death of either ex spouse or remarriage of an ex spouse are the most common reasons for terminating spousal support. Some states permit for the reduction, suspension, or termination of alimony if the recipient starts living with another person in a romantic relationship. The payor must provide the court with adequate evidence that the payee resides with another party and both are generally recognized as a couple. Many states now recognize same-sex as well as heterosexual cohabitation. Other reasons for termination include the recipient becoming self-supporting through employment or receipt of other financial support.

Moreover, the payor may request the court to terminate alimony by providing evidence a condition exists that would terminate support payments automatically. Another option is that the payor could prove that the continuation of alimony would be a financial hardship or unfair treatment. However, keep in mind that it is challenging to prove hardship or unfairness.

For example, the court will check for circumstances that prevent the payor from maintaining a normal standard of living. If the recipient needs an extension of alimony, he or she must request a modification before the agreement expires to be valid. If the payor proves one of the automatic termination conditions, the support stops permanently.

What Are the Alimony Laws by State?

Spousal support laws differ among the various states. The recipients may be awarded temporary support if they are the primary caregiver of the couple’s children. Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington are more likely to grant the recipient life-long support payments. Cases that involve long marriages where one partner earned much less than the other are most likely to be given permanent alimony.

Some states may limit or deny spousal support if the recipient is deemed to be the cause of the breakup. Georgia and North Carolina see adultery, abandonment, and marital misconduct as grounds for limiting or denying alimony altogether. Most states, however, recognize no-fault divorce and do not consider who is to blame when granting spousal support.

When Should I Contact a Lawyer?

If you are receiving spousal support or think that you may qualify, it may be useful to reach out to a local family attorney to consider what your options are for proceeding forward. Your attorney can provide you with advice, support, and representation for your claim.