Spousal support (or alimony) is a payment from one divorced spouse to the other. The purpose of alimony is to help the lower-earning spouses maintain the same reasonable standard of living.
The following are answers to frequently asked questions about spousal support.
Q: Who has the legal authority to determine alimony eligibility and amounts?
A: Alimony is determined at the state level, based on state spousal support laws. Alimony is typically decided as part of a separation or divorce proceeding. In general, judges consider whether one spouse has a financial need and whether the other spouse has the ability to pay.
Couples are also free to determine for themselves if one spouse will pay spousal support to the other spouse.
Q: How do family courts determine eligibility for alimony?
A: The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act Family court judges determine eligibility for alimony based on factors laid out in state law. That means there may be slight differences between states. However, judges generally consider:
- The financial condition and needs of the recipient spouse
- The recipient spouse's employment and earning capacity, including the impact of leaving the workforce to raise children
- If the recipient spouse is the custodial parent of a small child (or disabled child) and unable to seek employment outside the home because of caretaking duties
The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act was introduced in the U.S. in 1973 to try to create consistency across all states when determining alimony, but only six states have formally adopted it. Some states that have not adopted the Act may still use it as the basis for their states' alimony laws, however.
Q: How much alimony can I expect to receive? How is this determined?
A: Spousal support is much less structured than child support. Judges have broad discretion to determine both the amount and duration of alimony payments. It's usually paid monthly, but if the payor prefers to make a lump sum payment, that may be possible.
Generally, family court judges consider the following when determining how much alimony to award a spouse:
- The receiving spouses' age and physical and emotional condition
- The length of the marriage, with alimony being more common in long-term marriages of ten years or more
- The receiving spouse's financial standing and earning capacity
- The length of time needed for the receiving spouse to train for a job that can provide a self-sufficient income
- The couple's standard of living during the marriage (however, the court may also choose to base alimony on the standard of living that exists at the time of divorce trial)
- The ability of the payer spouse to provide support
Q: Can alimony amounts be modified?
A: Absolutely. The court where the divorce was finalized maintains jurisdiction. Either spouse can ask for a modification of a spousal support order if there has been a substantial change of circumstances. That could be a paying party's job loss or a receiving party's higher-paying job.
Q: What if my ex-spouse fails to pay the alimony they've been ordered to pay?
A: Alimony isn't enforced as strictly as child support. Failure to pay child support can result in wage garnishment or loss of professional licensure. For non-payment of alimony, a judge can find the non-paying spouse in contempt of court and can sentence the non-payer to time in jail.
Q: How long will I receive alimony from my ex?
A: Spousal support is generally intended to bridge the gap until the spouse receiving alimony is able to support themselves. Spousal support ends when:
- The paying spouse can make the case that the receiving spouse is now self-supporting
- The receiving spouse remarries or dies,
- The paying spouse dies, although the paying spouse's estate may still be obligated to make payments after death.
Additional Questions About Alimony? An Attorney Can Help
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