Marriage has changed in the last few decades. Women no longer expect to stay at home, and make up almost half of the workforce in America. However, when it comes to divorce law, alimony hasn't completely changed with the times.
Even though many women are in the work force, the idea that a husband must support his wife is still alive. Recently, there's been pressure to update current laws.
What Is Alimony?
Alimony, also called spousal support, is an obligation set by family law courts and marriage law. It's based on the idea that spouses in a marriage are responsible to support one another during marriage. Alimony continues that duty after a separation or divorce.
Why Alimony Is Given
Most states passed alimony laws in the 1960s and 1970s. Money is paid to the nonworking or lesser-earning spouse by the other spouse. Supporters say the money compensates typically the woman, who may have sacrificed a career to raise a family.
Opponents find alimony unfair. Many women now work and alimony often binds the ex-husband to pay support when in fact the ex-wife makes a living and there isn't a financial need for support payments.
Calculating Alimony: How Much & How Long
Alimony laws vary state by state. In general, though, when a spouse is eligible for alimony, a family court judge determines how much the spouse will be paid, and for how long, based on each spouse's:
- Basic needs - food, shelter and clothing
- Ability to pay - how much disposable income does each spouse have each month?
- Income level
- Ability to work and find work - do both spouses have the skills or education needed?
Different Types of Alimony
Alimony may be paid in lump sum in one payment or over time, or for a certain time period. There are different types of alimony:
- Temporary - may be granted during the pending divorce. This type continues until the agreement terminates it or until it's terminated by law
- Permanent, periodic - support one spouse pays the other after a divorce and is determined by the court in an agreement. Payments continue until the receiving spouse remarries, the paying spouse dies or according to the law or some other order of the court
- Rehabilitative - paid to help the other spouse become self-sufficient and is typically paid until some defined event occurs such as a graduation or a set number of years
Till Death Do Us Part?
At the heart of the debate is whether the payments should be viewed as supportive and transitional - until the spouse is back on her feet - or a long-term payment to pay back a spouse for sacrifices made during the marriage.
This debate is heating up due to many factors such as the recession and lost jobs, declining bank accounts and retirement packages. As a result, many spouses want to modify their alimony agreements. A survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers reported that "42 percent of the group's divorce attorneys accounted for an 'unusual' increase in such cases."1
One man, who's been divorced from his wife for more than 20 years and has been ordered to begin paying her alimony, commented, "This is insane." His pension is now being cut by more than one-third. Voicing his displeasure, he explains, "Someone can just come back 25 years later and say, 'My life went down the toilet, and you're doing good - so now I want some of your money'?"2
Proposed Changes to the Alimony Laws
As a result of situations like this and the overall economic climate, many states are rethinking their alimony laws to make sure they reflect the times. For example:
- Massachusetts: Alimony will be paid for half the length of the marriage and no longer than 12 years, unless there are minor children
- Pennsylvania: Alimony can be terminated if the recipient lives with another adult in a romantic relationship
- Oklahoma: Makes it harder for one spouse to be able to share the other's military retirement pay in a divorce settlement
- Ohio State Bar Association proposal: Alimony would be temporary for a marriage of 25 years or less, with a suggestion of alimony lasting no longer than seven years for a marriage of 15 years
Similar laws to put a time limit on alimony payments are being pushed in New Jersey, Florida, Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina.
Should Alimony Laws Be Changed?
People who support changes to alimony claim that society has changed since original alimony guidelines were created. However, state lawmakers also balance the preference to have a divorced spouses pay alimony, rather than have a divorced person who's in need look to the state for support.
Everyone can agree that a spouse who needs financial support after a divorce should get it, so long as the other spouse can afford it. The end of a marriage shouldn't mean the poor-house for either spouse, though. States that have changed their alimony laws are taking the rights steps to protect both spouses.
1 Jennifer Levitz, The New Art of Alimony, Wall Street Journal, Oct. 31, 2009, available at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703399204574505700448957522.html?mod=rss_law, accessed Dec. 23, 2009.
Questions for Your Attorney
- I've been divorced for decades, and I have to pay alimony to my ex-wife for life, as long as she doesn't remarry. Can I go back to court and have her support terminated?
- My ex-husband is trying to stop my alimony, which he's paid for years; can he successfully argue that I should have found a better way to support myself if rehabilitation wasn't factored into our divorce decree from 25 years ago?
- I take care of my elderly mother, and rely on her alimony to help with her support and her ex-husband now wants to end her payments. Do I have any rights in the modification case, as her caregiver?