Alimony is often one of the most contentious issues to resolve in a divorce.
This guide covers the basics of alimony so you’re better prepared for settlement negotiations with your spouse.
Let’s dive in.
What is Alimony?
Alimony is a legal obligation that one spouse has to provide financial support to the other spouse either during a separation or after a divorce.
It is intended to enable the spouse with a lower income to maintain the same standard of living they enjoyed during a marriage and is granted for either a specified amount of time or on a permanent basis.
Payments can vary in duration and amount, depending on the circumstances of a marriage.
In a long marriage, alimony may be permanent.
At other times, it may be for a short or specified amount of time, either until a spouse can receive training or an education to make them more desirable in the workforce (rehabilitative alimony) or as a way to compensate them for giving up their career to stay at home while the other spouse gained more education or advanced degrees (reimbursement alimony).
Temporary alimony may be granted when a couple first separates but can later be modified as part of a final divorce decree.
It’s important to note that alimony is separate from child support.
Alimony is centered around supporting the financially weaker spouse, while child support is intended to provide financial assistance to the spouse who has primary custody of any children in a marriage.
Alimony and child support are often awarded in concert with each other at the discretion of the courts.
The amount of alimony is based on several factors, including the income of each spouse, the monetary needs of the spouse seeking alimony, if children are involved, the length of the marriage, and the physical and emotional health of each spouse, among others.
What is the Difference Between Spousal Support, Maintenance and Alimony?
Spousal support, maintenance, and alimony all mean the same thing. However, in recent years alimony has started to slowly be phased out and spousal support or maintenance have become the preferred terms in most states.
Spousal support is seen as having a more positive connotation than alimony, which was used exclusively until the 1970s when California first introduced the change in language.
How is Alimony Decided in a Divorce?
In some instances, divorcing couples may be able to come to an agreement on their own regarding the length and the amount of alimony that should be paid.
Unfortunately, there are many times when couples can’t reach those decisions by themselves.
When that happens, a judge will need to make a final decision for them.
What are the Alimony Laws in my State?
Alimony is determined by the divorce laws in your state.
Since every state has different laws, you really need to understand the alimony laws in your state.
For an overview of how alimony works in your state, click on your state’s link below.
State-by-State Divorce Laws
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
- North Dakota
- Rhode Island
- South Carolina
- South Dakota
- West Virginia
What factors does a judge consider when determining alimony?
If you go to trial, a judge will look at several factors to determine the amount and duration of alimony.
Those factors typically include:
- The length of the marriage
- The financial needs of the spouse requesting the support
- The other spouse’s ability to pay
- The income available to either spouse through the investment of any assets
- What each spouse actually earns and what their earning capacity might be, including the educational levels, vocational skills and the employability of each spouse
- How long the spouse seeking alimony has been out of the job force
- The costs and amount of time it would take a spouse to get sufficient training or education to be able to find appropriate employment
- The lifestyle the couple enjoyed while they were married and the likelihood that each party can maintain a reasonably comparable standard of living
- The parenting responsibilities of each spouse
- The history of the monetary and non-monetary contributions of each spouse, including the care and education of any children and whether or not a spouse had to interrupt his or her career or education to provide for a quality home life
- The tax treatment and consequences for both spouses of an alimony award
- The distribution of assets and payouts on equitable distribution out of current income
- Any other factors that a judge deems relevant.
Who Gets Alimony in a Divorce?
The purpose of alimony is the attempt to maintain the standard of living that spouses had while married.
If you were the primary breadwinner during the marriage, then your spouse is probably going to be entitled to alimony of some sort or another.
Courts are gender-neutral when it comes to alimony, meaning men or women both can qualify for alimony. Once it is determined that alimony is appropriate, the key is to work out the duration and the amount.
On the flip side, alimony can stop or be modified either temporarily or permanently due to many circumstances:
- The death of either spouse
- The payor retires. At this point, a judge can decide to modify the amount of alimony to more accurately reflect current economic status
- The recipient gets married again or cohabitates with another person
- The children reach an age of maturity
- The payor loses a job or has a substantial drop in income
- The payor becomes ill
- The payor faces a financial emergency
Can a Working Ex-Spouse Get Alimony?
Short answer: yes.
Alimony is awarded when a former spouse is not able to meet his or her needs in a manner that is similar to the standard of living that was enjoyed prior to a divorce.
A working ex-spouse may still bring in a paycheck, but it may not be enough to meet their needs.
In fact, the courts look favorably on a spouse who is attempting to rebuild their lives by getting a job or continuing to work after a divorce.
If there is a big income disparity between the two spouses, then regardless of job status, an ex-spouse may be entitled to request alimony.
Court decisions regarding alimony can also be impacted by state laws, and it is best to research the laws in your state to see what the guidelines are regarding a working ex-spouse and how it impacts alimony.
How Many Years Does a Person Have to Pay Alimony?
There are several different types of alimony and the length of time that a person must pay will depend on the type of alimony they have been ordered to pay by the courts. Different types of alimony include:
This type of alimony continues indefinitely or until there is some kind of major change in circumstances for either spouse.
Generally, it is awarded only in long-term marriages, unless a couple agrees to this form of alimony on their own.
Most commonly, it is awarded to a spouse who has been a full-time parent and homemaker for many years.
The spouse traded in a career for stay-at-home duties and did not build up a long and successful career with a wage-earning capacity and standard of living that they were able to fulfill.
The spouse seeking alimony still has an obligation to attempt to contribute some of his or her own support to the best of their abilities under the circumstances.
Alimony is only paid for a pre-determined and specified amount of time.
Term alimony is usually awarded in shorter duration marriages because there is more of a probability that the spouse seeking support will be able to more readily become self-sufficient and maintain a reasonable standard of living that they enjoyed during the marriage.
If a couple separates but is not yet divorced, it may be possible to receive some form of temporary alimony so that the lower-earning spouse will be supported while the divorce is in progress.
It’s best to have a written agreement in place to reduce disagreements. You should note that if you are entitled to alimony, then it starts as soon as you separate.
Coming to an agreement as soon as possible is important, but if you are not able to do so, you should seek assistance from the courts immediately.
This pays a spouse for time and support given to the other spouse who has obtained a valuable degree or certification.
For example, if one spouse supports the family while the other earns a medical or law degree with the anticipation of sharing the benefits of the degree after it is earned, then the supporting spouse may be able to receive alimony for their support efforts.
This is paid for a predefined amount of time and is tied to a specific plan for a spouse receiving payments to go back to school and get a degree or training to make them more financially self-sufficient.
The goal is to pay alimony to a spouse who would otherwise not be able to maintain a standard of living they enjoyed during the marriage, allowing them time to become self-sufficient.
Is Alimony Taxable?
If your divorce decree was signed prior to December 31, 2018, then alimony is taxable to the recipient and deductible by the payor.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act modified the tax treatment of alimony. Specifically, alimony is no longer taxable or deductible for divorces which are finalized after December 31, 2018.
This means that you’re paying alimony in “after-tax” dollars and the recipient doesn’t have to pay any taxes on alimony payments.
Keep in mind that the taxability of alimony varies at the State level. Some states have conformed to the Federal tax treatment (nontaxable/non-deductible). However, that’s not the case for all states.
For instance, in California, alimony is still taxable and deductible.
How Much Do You Get for Alimony in a Divorce?
Every state has different laws dictating what factors must be considered when determining how much alimony must be paid.
Generally, courts will look at the current income, reasonable expenses and the potential for future income for each spouse.
Courts will then attempt to award alimony in such a way that it allows for a lifestyle close to what the couple had before they divorced. This is known as “the standard of living established during the marriage.”
It may be possible to negotiate on alimony by giving up interests in other assets as a way of striking a deal that is equitable to both spouses. Courts may also take into account child support payments, parenting time and other factors as a way to find a suitable balance.
The other critical factor to consider is the duration of spousal support – how long you will receive alimony for.
There is a big overall difference in receiving alimony for just a couple of years versus receiving alimony on a permanent basis.
Take this into consideration if you are negotiating for alimony. It may make more sense to ask for a lower monthly amount in exchange for a much longer time frame so that less financial stress is put on the payor.
How Do I Get Alimony in a Divorce?
To get alimony, you will need to ask for a spousal or partner support order once you file your divorce paperwork.
You can also request temporary support during your period of separation while waiting for your final divorce decree to be issued.
If you are requesting alimony, after you file your paperwork, you will serve your spouse and get your court date.
You will need to make sure that you also provide proof of your income and expenses and any documents that can help the court determine the income of your spouse as well.
In some instances, before you go to court, you may be required to go through mediation in an attempt to determine alimony or other divorce issues.
If you can’t reach an agreement, then you can still go in front of a judge who makes the decisions related to alimony for you.
After the divorce hearing, the judge will sign a court order to create a legal and binding agreement.
In some states, enforcing alimony payments may include the ability to seek wage garnishments, liens and other enforcement vehicles. It is also possible for the recipient to return to court in a contempt proceeding to force a non-payor to comply with the court order.
How Do I Avoid Paying Alimony in a Divorce?
Without a doubt, alimony has the potential to wreak havoc on the budget of your post-divorce life.
Under many circumstances when facts warrant it, you will not be able to avoid paying alimony. However, there are some strategies you can employ that may be able to either reduce the amount you’ll have to pay or eliminate it altogether.
Consider the following things that you might be able to do:
Prove that your spouse committed adultery.
In some states, if a spouse commits adultery, this can have a material effect if alimony should be paid or not.
It may also have an impact on the amount and duration as well.
You will need to provide proof that a spouse was engaged in this activity by providing photos, receipts, videos or witness statements that will prove your accusations beyond a reasonable doubt.
Some state laws do not allow adultery to be used as a determining factor unless it can be shown that the cheating spouse used marital assets in the context of the affair.
Request an evaluation of your spouse’s ability to work.
Some spouses who were homemakers during a marriage may want to continue in that role instead of seeking ways to become self-sufficient, resulting in undue financial hardship on you.
If your spouse has the education and skills to work in a good-paying job, then ask a judge to order a vocational evaluation. This is an assessment that provides details and insights as to the kind of job your spouse could do and what they might earn in their field of expertise.
Even if you are still required to pay alimony, you may be able to have the duration reduced to the amount of time it takes for a spouse to either get training or find a suitable job, instead of being forced to make permanent alimony payments. Short-term payments may be the solution if a spouse took time off from their career to help care for children or to help you further your own career.
End your marriage as soon as possible.
In many states, alimony is based in part on the length of a marriage.
The longer the marriage, the longer the duration of alimony payments and the higher they will be.
If you get a sense that a marriage is going poorly, then this is one of the things you might use as a consideration to end a marriage sooner rather than later. Of course, you shouldn’t make this decision lightly.
Make sure you keep up with your ex-spouse’s relationship status.
If an ex-spouse gets married, then typically, alimony payments will end. In other instances, if an ex begins living with another person, this may also trigger an end to payments. Laws will vary from state to state, but it may pay you to know when these life changes take place.
Prove your spouse does not need the money.
It is not uncommon for spouses to hide assets from each other during a divorce.
Even though both spouses are required to complete financial disclosure forms, there are times when a dishonest spouse will lie about the assets they have.
If a spouse has hidden the fact that they have a large savings account, trust fund or inheritance, they may not need alimony to transition to a post-marriage lifestyle.
In some cases, if you suspect your spouse is being dishonest, you may need to hire a forensic accountant to help you track down hidden assets. Although this may require some cost upfront on your part, you could save significant amounts of money in the long run.
Avoid paying alimony through actions at the beginning of a marriage.
You may be able to avoid alimony payments by drafting a pre-nuptial agreement before you get married.
This will clearly define the financial parameters of the marriage if it ends, as well as determining what is considered marital property and what is considered separate property.
In other cases, you may be able to draft a post-nuptial agreement after the marriage takes place. This covers the same information and terms but is done so after marriage.
Negotiate your way out of alimony payments.
If you are already headed for divorce, it may be possible to avoid paying alimony by agreeing to give up a larger share of other marital assets.
This may include ceding interest in the family home or agreeing to give up a larger share of your pension or savings accounts.
In these types of cases, it may be useful to employ a mediator who can help place valuations on various assets to help negotiate a settlement that is fair and equitable while also helping you to avoid paying alimony.
Consider making a lifestyle change.
If you are the higher-earning spouse, you will generally be the one paying alimony if it is awarded.
One way to avoid paying alimony is by downsizing your career so that you make less money and live a less opulent lifestyle.
It may be something you were considering anyway if you were suffering from job burnout or were unhappy in your career.
Although avoiding alimony should not necessarily be a prime consideration, if you were considering a career change to a less stressful environment, now would be a good time to make the change.
You may not have to pay if you have sole custody of your children.
If custody has been awarded to you only, then you will need to devote considerable resources to support them, and this may be enough to make the case that you cannot also support your spouse as well.
You will need to devote money to daycare, child care, transportation, education, food, and clothing, among other things and this will significantly cut into your ability to pay alimony.
In fact, there may be cases where a spouse may be required to make child support payments instead to help cover your expenses.
What Percentage of My Income Will go to Alimony?
It’s nearly impossible to determine what percentage of a person’s income may be paid in alimony.
Many states use a dozen or more factors in deciding how much alimony a spouse may be required to pay – and income disparities between spouses is just one of those factors.
Some states do have guidelines that they employ which can incorporate percentages of income, but those formulas vary widely by state and also do not take into account that a judge will have a fair amount of discretion when it comes to awarding alimony.
Check the guidelines for your state and you may also be able to find a calculator that will give you a rough estimate on what you might pay, but ultimately understand that the final amount could change quite a bit from your original estimate.
Can Alimony be Awarded After a Divorce?
You are fighting a bit of an uphill battle in seeking alimony after a divorce has been finalized.
But in some states and in some cases, the issue of alimony can be revisited at a later date.
To do so, it is necessary to show changed circumstances of a significant nature to prove to the courts that a need for alimony now exists.
The requesting party will probably also need to show that the change was unforeseeable at the time of the divorce, such as with a job loss.
It’s best to check the laws in your state or consult an attorney if you are seeking this type of legal action.
Can Alimony be Increased After a Divorce?
It is possible to seek a spousal support modification, but generally, it is best to seek the maximum amount possible as part of an initial divorce decree.
A modification can only take place when there is a material change in income or need.
Courts may consider if there is a job loss or illness if you are receiving alimony, or if a paying spouse has gotten a significant pay raise or possibly if child support obligations have ended. There may be other factors as well depending on your state or personal situation.
To request a change, the person seeking the increase should begin by petitioning the court to ask for a modification.
The petition must state the substantial change that has taken place to trigger the request.
It must then be served on the other party and if there is a disagreement, a hearing will be held, or a judge may order mediation to try and reach an agreement.
If mediation fails, then a trial will be held.
If alimony is only for a specified amount of time and that obligation has been fulfilled per the terms of the divorce decree, modifications are generally not allowed.
However, a modification may take place under these conditions if it is discovered that there was an error in the final decree related to alimony.
Can I Get Alimony if We Were Only Engaged but Never Married?
Laws will vary from state to state, but laws governing married couples generally do not apply to unmarried couples who separate.
There are exceptions, such as in those states that recognize common-law marriages and those who qualify as domestic partners.
Each partner is presumed to have his or her own property unless debts and assets have been deliberately combined, such as in a shared bank account.
Oral or written agreements to share assets may also be enforced by the courts as well although oral agreements may be exceptionally difficult to prove.
In most states, unless there is a clear agreement to provide post-separation support, neither partner will be entitled to receive support that is akin to alimony.
Can I Get Alimony if I Stayed at Home During the Marriage?
Yes. All states recognize the contributions of a stay-at-home spouse during marriage.
While the number of spouses that stay at home has decreased quite a bit with the advent of the double-income household, many couples still choose to have one parent stay at home to raise children and handle homemaking responsibilities.
Do not devalue your role in a marriage if you are a stay-at-home spouse.
Just as a working spouse supports a family during marriage, that may still be the case after a divorce, meaning that alimony and child support will likely be a part of the decree.
Although awards are not automatic, it is safe to assume that the request will be made if a spouse stayed at home during the marriage, especially if it was to raise children, particularly in marriages of long duration.
Can I Get Alimony if We’ve Only Been Married a Year?
The rule of thumb is that the shorter the marriage, the more difficult it is to collect alimony.
If you’ve only been married a very short time, you may get temporary alimony for a little while, but unless there are extenuating circumstances, expect that you will receive very limited support, or a judge may decide to not award alimony at all.
Can I Get Alimony if My Ex-Spouse Quits Their Job?
It’s one thing to get fired or laid off from a job, but if a spouse decides to quit his or her job in the middle of a divorce or afterward, there’s a very good chance this will not relieve them of the obligation to pay alimony or child support.
Since it’s a deliberate choice, a judge will probably continue to base support calculations based on how much he or she could realistically earn if they were still employed.
The same also applies to a person receiving alimony.
Lured by the possibility of receiving alimony instead of having to work, a spouse might decide to also quit his or her job.
But courts are wise to this and not easily manipulated. There are legal mechanisms in place to deal with intentionally unemployed or underemployed spouses before, during and after a divorce.
There can be mitigating factors that may necessitate quitting a job.
If you have children and you are now the primary custodial parent, you may need to adjust your work schedule or employment to be able to meet their needs instead. Judges will attempt to be fair in this case as well as listen to other issues that may be the reason for a change in job status.
Can I Get Alimony if There was Infidelity in the Marriage?
It depends. In about half of the states, adultery has no impact on alimony. But in other states, if the courts determine that adultery took place, then alimony can be awarded.
For example, in North Carolina, alimony will be ordered if the paying spouse is found to have committed adultery.
However, if the receiving spouse committed adultery, then he or she cannot receive alimony.
In some states, adultery may be one of many factors that are used to decide whether alimony should be awarded or not. Courts may choose or not choose to consider adultery in deciding whether to award alimony.
Adultery has little to no impact in most states when it comes to a division of assets.
Most states do not use the fact that one spouse cheated to award the other spouse a larger portion of marital assets.
There is one exception to this, and it occurs when dissipation takes place. Dissipation means that one spouse spent marital money for a non-marital purpose, such as in an adulterous affair.
Proving dissipation took place can be difficult and requires providing documentation to support your side of the story.
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