Many states define “alimony” as a court-ordered payment made by one ex-spouse to the other. Courts can also award temporary spousal support while a divorce is pending Judges award alimony in to try to equalize the financial resources of a divorcing couple. When deciding whether to award alimony, a judge will consider whether one spouse has a demonstrated financial need and if the other spouse has the ability to pay.
Judges usually award alimony in cases where the spouses have unequal earning power and have been married a long time. For example, a judge isn’t likely to award alimony if the couple has been married for only a year. In fact, some state laws allow alimony awards only when the couple has been married for a certain amount of time.
How Does Alimony Work?
Although judges have to follow state law in deciding whether alimony is appropriate, they usually have a lot of discretion in deciding when and how someone has to pay it. An alimony award can be temporary to support a spouse only while the divorce is pending or a permanent award that’s part of a divorce decree.
Alimony payments can be in the form of:
• a lump-sum payment
• a property transfer, or
• periodic (monthly) payments.
In general, lump-sum alimony awards and alimony in the form of a property transfer are non-modifiable, meaning they can’t be changed later and can’t be terminated or undone. Periodic alimony payments may be changed when there’s a significant change in one or both of the spouses’ circumstances. Periodic alimony awards are the most common and require one spouse to pay a certain amount to the other (the “supported” or “dependent” spouse) each month. A periodic or monthly alimony award will end on a date set by the judge, or when one of the following events occurs:
• the supported spouse remarries
• the supported spouse moves in with another person
• either spouse dies, or
• a significant event (like a paying spouse’s retirement or a supported spouse’s new high-paying job) happens and a judge determines that alimony is no longer necessary.
As with most issues in your divorce, you and your spouse can negotiate and reach an agreement about the amount of alimony and length of time it’ll be paid. If you can’t agree, you’ll need to file a formal motion (request) asking a court to decide alimony. The court will schedule a hearing where both sides will be able to present their positions regarding alimony. After considering the arguments and evidence presented at the hearing, the judge will issue an order.
One of the downsides of asking the court to decide is that if you’re represented by an attorney, the expense of going through a hearing can be significant. Even if you’re not represented by an attorney, you will have to spend a lot of time gathering evidence (such as financial documents) and preparing for the hearing.
How Courts Decide Alimony
Every state has its own guidelines on what judges should consider when deciding whether to award alimony. Most states require judges to evaluate:
• how property is being divided in the divorce
• the standard of living during the marriage
• the supported spouse’s ability to maintain a similar lifestyle without support
• each spouse’s income, assets, and debts
• the length of the marriage
• each spouse’s age and health
• contributions that either spouse made to the other’s training, education, or career advancement, and
• any other factors the judge thinks are relevant.
If you’re the spouse asking for support, the court will look closely at your current income or ability to earn if you aren’t currently working. When the supported spouse has been out of the workforce or has been underemployed (has an opportunity to work full- or part-time but chooses not to) for a long time, the judge is more likely to award support for at least as long as it will take the supported spouse to become independent. For example, if one spouse is trained as a doctor but took several years off to care for children and support the other spouse’s career, a judge will examine the medically trained spouse’s future earning potential. Maybe that spouse needs initial support to reenter the workforce but not a long-term alimony award.
Both spouses might have to make some life and work changes after divorce. For example, a judge might require a spouse who has a part-time job that doesn’t pay well to try to find full-time employment in a higher-paying field. Sometimes, a judge will order (or the paying spouse might request) that an expert called a “vocational evaluator” make a report to the judge on the job prospects for a spouse who hasn’t been fully employed for a while. The evaluator will administer vocational tests and then compare the spouse’s qualifications with potential employers or open job positions in the area to estimate how much income the spouse could earn.
Enforcing an Alimony Award
The duty to pay alimony begins as soon as an order requiring it is signed by a judge. An alimony order is enforceable by the supported spouse: If the paying spouse isn’t actually paying, the supported spouse can file a “show cause” action (motion), and the court will set a hearing to determine why the paying spouse isn’t following the order and what the court should do to enforce it. Family law courts have various tools at their disposal to enforce alimony payments, and a deadbeat spouse could face fines and penalties for failing to follow an alimony order. A court can also order a spouse to pay alimony retroactively to make up for any missed payments.
Types of Alimony
There are several different types of alimony that can be awarded during a divorce:
1. Temporary alimony – This type of alimony is awarded during divorce proceedings. The payments will only last until the divorce is finalized and an official alimony agreement can be put into place.
2. Permanent or long-term alimony – This type of alimony is much less common now than it once was. It is given to one partner until their death, retirement, or remarriage.
3. Rehabilitative alimony – This is the more common type of alimony given in divorces today. It has a fixed end date set by a judge; the date is selected based on how long the judge believes the individual needs to get back on their feet.
4. Reimbursement alimony – This form of alimony, as the name implies, is given as a reimbursement for any investment made into the other spouse’s education or business. For example, if one spouse worked to put their partner through college, and they were divorced shortly afterwards, the judge might award reimbursement alimony to the first partner until the “debt” is repaid.
In the case of reimbursement alimony, the duration of the alimony payments is typically equal to the duration of the support received. So, using the same example as above, let’s say your spouse support you through four years of college. In most cases, this would mean that your reimbursement alimony payments would also last for four years, balancing out the amount of time and the approximate cost your ex put into supporting you.
In many relationships, one spouse is the primary income-earner while the other tends to children and household tasks. In these cases, the partner who was responsible for the care of the household often finds themselves with a large gap in their employment history. They may have even dropped out of school to care for children at home, leaving them with a lack of skills, education, and work history needed to find gainful employment after their divorce. In these cases, the person lacking in these areas will typically receive alimony until they can receive the education or training needed to find a job. Alternatively, if both partners have comparable skills and education, and the judge determines that they are equally employable, spousal support is typically not awarded to either spouse.
Duration of Marriage
Another factor that a divorce court will look at when determining the duration of spousal support is the length of the marriage. While the final determination will vary by case (and each state has a different guideline that judges follow), these are the averages based on the length of the marriage:
• 5 years or less – Alimony is awarded for approximately half of the length of your marriage. So, if you were married for four years, you can expect to make alimony for roughly two years.
• 10-20 years – On average, you can expect to pay alimony for about 60 to 70 percent of the length of your marriage. So, if you were married for 20 years, your alimony will likely last between 12 and 14 years. However, this can change considerably based on individual circumstances and the judge overseeing your case.
• 20+ years – Marriages that lasted this long are the most likely to see permanent alimony. This means you should expect to support your ex until retirement or until they pass away or remarry.
Avoiding Monthly Alimony Payments
Making monthly alimony payments can be frustrating for a former spouse. Some people may want to avoid monthly payments because they don’t want to risk the consequences of missing a payment one month. Others may want to make a lump sum payment so they can move on with their lives and not have a monthly reminder of a prior marriage. Just like collecting a lottery winning all at once instead of spreading it out over a period of years, you may be able to pay off your entire alimony balance at once and avoid making monthly payments. How to Avoid Monthly Alimony Payments: Use Lump Sum Payment.
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