No doubt, divorce has a big impact on your life. Your personal relationship with your spouse changes, obviously, and so does your relationship with your children. Your finances change, too.

Often in divorces, a spouse is ordered to pay alimony (also called spousal support or maintenance) to the other spouse. The idea seems simple - one former spouse helps to financially support the other - but it's rarely that easy. In all cases, there are many factors the courts look at when deciding if alimony should be awarded, the amount and for how long.

When Alimony Will Be Awarded

Awards of alimony and other laws governing marriage and divorce are specific to your state. The laws give the courts some guidance on how alimony is awarded, but the judge has wide authority when deciding whether or not to award alimony.

When making this decision, most state laws require judges to consider various factors, which may include:

  • The standard of living during the marriage
  • Each spouse's income and financial condition at the time of divorce
  • The age and physical and emotional health of each person
  • One spouse's need for financial support and the other spouse's ability to pay alimony

How Much Alimony Will be Awarded?

Generally, the amount of an alimony award is the amount that the recipient will need for "maintenance," which includes things like:

  • Food, shelter and clothing
  • Reasonable or necessary transportation costs
  • Household expenses

Courts Don't Consider Some Things

When figuring out the recipient spouse's needs and the amount of alimony, most courts won't consider the following expenses to be necessary:

  • Savings account contributions
  • Vacation or recreational expenses
  • Continuing an unusually lavish lifestyle

Judges aren't required to grant or deny alimony under any particular facts or circumstances. Alimony likely will be awarded if you can convince the court that you need it. Likewise, if you can convince the judge that your ex-spouse doesn't need it, alimony likely won't be awarded, or at the very least, the amount will be less than your ex-spouse asked for.

How Alimony Is Paid

The spouse who is ordered to pay support usually makes payments periodically or in installments, usually every month. This arrangement helps the payor manage finances, while at the same time helps to make sure the recipient can pay monthly obligations on time.

Single Payment Option

While most states allow the courts to order that alimony be paid in a one-time payment or lump sum, it isn't very common. The paying spouse often can't afford to make a large payment all at once, and there are possible tax consequences to the recipient. Alimony must be reported as income on federal tax returns, and receiving a large alimony payment all at once may push the recipient spouse into a much higher tax bracket.

In some situations, a lump-sum award may be necessary. This may happen, for example, when a spouse makes it known to the court or the ex-spouse that he or she won't make periodic payments, even if ordered by the court.

How Long Alimony Payments Last

State divorce laws vary on when alimony payments will end, or terminate. Some laws provide that alimony ends when:

  • The recipient remarries or begins living with another person of the opposite sex
  • When the paying spouse dies
  • When the parties' separation agreement gives a certain date for terminating alimony

Changing the Payments

In certain situations, an award of alimony might be changed or modified so payments are reduced, increased or terminated, depending on current events. For instance, the payor spouse may ask a court to lower or terminate alimiony when the recipient spouse finds a good-paying job.

Alimony is often one of the most fought-over items in any divorce. It can make the stress level soar and make the divorce process much longer. Whether you're asking for alimony or challenging your ex-spouse's request for alimony, it's a good idea to talk to an attorney to help ease the stress and to make sure your interests are protected.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can a court award alimony if my ex-spouse does not ask for it and our separation agreement does not state that I have to pay it?
  • I'm a professional athlete, and my ex-spouse regularly spent a lot of money while we were married. Will the court require me to pay enough alimony to support the lifestyle she had when we were together?
  • What kind of records do I need to show that I can't afford to pay alimony?

Tagged as: Family Law, Spousal Support, alimony, family lawyer