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Which Spouse Pays Alimony?

Alimony Divorce
Which Spouse Pays Alimony?

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.

Negotiating Alimony and Other Terms of Your Divorce

If you and your spouse don’t agree on alimony payments or other terms of your divorce (such as property division and child custody), it doesn’t mean you’ll have to battle it out in court. Divorce mediation—negotiation led by a neutral third party outside of court—is an excellent alternative for many. You might even be able to mediate your divorce online.

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.

Tax Impacts of Alimony

In Utah, alimony payments aren’t tax-deductible for the paying spouse, and alimony payments received aren’t taxable income for the supported spouse. That’s a change from how alimony was treated for decades.

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.

How the Amount of Alimony is Determined

Unlike child support, which in most states is mandated according to very specific monetary guidelines, courts have broad discretion in determining whether to award spousal support and, if so, how much and for how long. The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, on which many states’ spousal support statutes are based, recommends that courts consider the following factors in making decisions about alimony awards:
• The age, physical condition, emotional state, and financial condition of the former spouses;
• The length of time the recipient would need for education or training to become self-sufficient;
• The couple’s standard of living during the marriage;
• The length of the marriage; and
• The ability of the payer spouse to support the recipient and still support himself or herself.

Alimony and Support Orders

Although awards may be hard to estimate, whether the payer spouse will comply with a support order is even harder to gauge. Alimony enforcement is not like child support enforcement, which has the “teeth” of wage garnishment, liens, and other enforcement mechanisms. The recipient could, however, return to court in a contempt proceeding to force payment. Because alimony can be awarded with a court order, the mechanisms available for enforcing any court order are available to a former spouse who’s owed alimony.

How Long Alimony Must Be Paid?

Alimony is often deemed rehabilitative, that is, it’s ordered for only so long as is necessary for the recipient spouse to receive training and become self-supporting. If the divorce decree doesn’t specify a spousal support termination date, the payments must continue until the court orders otherwise. Most awards end if the recipient remarries. Termination upon the payer’s death isn’t necessarily automatic; in cases where the recipient spouse is unlikely to obtain gainful employment, due perhaps to age or health considerations, the court may order that further support be provided from the payer’s estate or life insurance proceeds.

Alimony Trends

In the past, most alimony awards provided for payments to former wives by breadwinning former husbands. As the culture has changed, so that now most marriages include two wage earners, women are viewed as less dependent, and men are more apt to be primary parents, the courts and spousal support awards have kept pace. More and more, the tradition of men paying and women receiving spousal support is being eroded, and orders of alimony payments from ex-wife to ex-husband are on the rise.

Who Qualifies for Spousal Support?

The majority of the states define spousal support as payments made by one spouse to the other. It is also known as “alimony” or “spousal maintenance.” A spousal support award can be temporary while a divorce is pending, or it can become a permanent award and be included in the divorce decree. Alimony payments are meant to equally divide the financial resources of a divorcing couple. A judge will essentially assess if one spouse has a demonstrated financial need and if the other spouse has the ability to pay the payments. Alimony is usually granted in cases where the spouses have unequal earning power and have been married a long time. For instance, a judge is not likely to award alimony if the couple has only been married for a year. Some state laws prohibit spousal support awards unless the couple has been married for a certain amount of time. Therefore, the duration of the marriage is crucial in some cases.

How Is the Amount of Alimony Determined?

Unlike child support, which in most states is required according to very specific monetary guidelines, courts have a broader discretion in determining whether to grant spousal support. The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, on which many states’ spousal support statutes are based, suggests that courts consider the following factors in making decisions about spousal support awards:
• The age, physical condition, emotional state, and financial condition of the former spouses;
• The length of time the recipient may need for education or training to become self-sufficient;
• The couple’s standard of living during the marriage;
• The length of the marriage; and
• The ability of the payer spouse to support the recipient and still support himself or herself.

How Does Alimony Operate?

There are different types of alimony payments that can be ordered by the court. For instance, if an alimony is ordered by the court, it can be in the form of a lump-sum payment, a property transfer, or periodic monthly payments. Periodic alimony awards are the most common and require one spouse to pay a certain amount to the other each month. The other spouse is usually the one that does not earn or is the spouse that needs to be financially supported.

Next, the lump-sum alimony awards and alimony in the form of a property transfer are generally non-modifiable, meaning they cannot be changed later and cannot be terminated or undone. For a periodic or monthly alimony award there will be an end date set by the judge, or it may terminate when one of the following events occurs:
• The supported spouse remarries;
• The supported spouse cohabitates;
• Either spouse dies or;
• A significant event occurs (paying spouse’s retirement) such that a judge determines that alimony is no longer necessary.

What Are the Divorce Alimony Rules?

If you are the spouse requesting the support, the question of whether you qualify for alimony is usually determined by taking into account your own income or ability to earn if you are not currently employed. However, this is not necessarily what you are earning at the time you go to court, but it represents your earning potential. For instance, if one spouse is trained as a medical doctor but took several years off to care for children and support the other spouse’s career, a judge will examine that spouse’s future earning potential. The spouse may need initial support to reenter the workforce, but not a long-term alimony award.

Following a divorce, you may also be required to make some changes in your life and work. For instance, if you have a part-time job that does not pay well, you may be required to attempt to find full-time employment in a higher-paying field. Courts can hire reporters to ensure that there is a good faith employment search and what the earning capacity of that spouse would be in the workforce.

How Do I Enforce an Alimony Award?

A spouse who is ordered to pay alimony in a divorce will need to make the payments when they are due. Alimony starts as soon as a divorce order requiring it is signed by the judge. A spouse who fails to make the required alimony payments can be held in contempt of court. This means the supported spouse can file a show cause action with the court against the spouse refusing to make alimony payments. The court will set a hearing to determine the reason for payment delinquencies. Family law courts have various tools from their resources to enforce alimony payments. Therefore, the spouse not making the payments in accordance with the divorce decree could face fines and penalties.

How Do I Terminate an Alimony Award?

Death of either ex-spouse or remarriage of an ex-spouse are the most common reasons for terminating spousal support. Some states permit for the reduction, suspension, or termination of alimony if the recipient starts living with another person in a romantic relationship. The payor must provide the court with adequate evidence that the payee resides with another party and both are generally recognized as a couple. Many states now recognize same-sex as well as heterosexual cohabitation. Other reasons for termination include the recipient becoming self-supporting through employment or receipt of other financial support. Moreover, the payor may request the court to terminate alimony by providing evidence a condition exists that would terminate support payments automatically. Another option is that the payor could prove that the continuation of alimony would be a financial hardship or unfair treatment. However, keep in mind that it is challenging to prove hardship or unfairness.

When Should I Contact a Lawyer?

If you are receiving spousal support or think that you may qualify, it may be useful to reach out to a local family attorney to consider what your options are for proceeding forward. Your attorney can provide you with advice, support, and representation for your claim.

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It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Legal problems come to everyone. Whether it’s your son who gets in a car wreck, your uncle who loses his job and needs to file for bankruptcy, your sister’s brother who’s getting divorced, or a grandparent that passes away without a will -all of us have legal issues and questions that arise. So when you have a law question, call Ascent Law for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you!

Michael R. Anderson, JD

Ascent Law LLC
8833 S. Redwood Road, Suite C
West Jordan, Utah
84088 United States
Telephone: (801) 676-5506
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About the Author

People who want a lot of Bull go to a Butcher. People who want results navigating a complex legal field go to a Lawyer that they can trust. That’s where I come in. I am Michael Anderson, an Attorney in the Salt Lake area focusing on the needs of the Average Joe wanting a better life for him and his family. I’m the Lawyer you can trust. I grew up in Utah and love it here. I am a Father to three, a Husband to one, and an Entrepreneur. I understand the feelings of joy each of those roles bring, and I understand the feeling of disappointment, fear, and regret when things go wrong. I attended the University of Utah where I received a B.A. degree in 2010 and a J.D. in 2014. I have focused my practice in Wills, Trusts, Real Estate, and Business Law. I love the thrill of helping clients secure their future, leaving a real legacy to their children. Unfortunately when problems arise with families. I also practice Family Law, with a focus on keeping relationships between the soon to be Ex’s civil for the benefit of their children and allowing both to walk away quickly with their heads held high. Before you worry too much about losing everything that you have worked for, before you permit yourself to be bullied by your soon to be ex, before you shed one more tear in silence, call me. I’m the Lawyer you can trust.