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Spousal Support (Alimony) in a Nutshell

Contents

    Will the Judge Order Spousal Support in My Divorce?

    There is No Specific Formula for Spousal Support

    Unlike with child support, there is no formula that will tell you whether or not you will get spousal support or how much you will get. Spousal support is decided on a case-by-case basis. 

    Sometimes spousal support is needed to make sure both parties are taken care of after a divorce. Spousal support may be ordered if one party’s property award is not enough to support him or her properly. It may also be ordered if one party will be financially worse off after the divorce and the other party can pay some money to make up the difference.

    Spousal support is not simple. If you want to ask for spousal support, you may want to talk to a lawyer. If you need a lawyer and are low-income, you may qualify for free legal help. Use Find a Lawyer to look for legal help in your area.

    You and Your Spouse Can Agree on Spousal Support

    Spousal support is part of the overall property division in a divorce. You and your spouse can try to work out a property settlement yourselves. This includes whether one party will pay spousal support and how much it will be.

    If You and Your Spouse Don’t Agree, the Judge Will Decide

    If you or your spouse asks the judge for spousal support, the judge will consider:

    • How each party behaved during the marriage. The judge will look at the spouses' conduct and who was at fault in the breakdown of the marriage. However, fault alone will not justify an award of spousal support.

    • The length of the marriage. The longer the marriage, the more likely the judge is to award spousal support. This is most important if one spouse doesn’t have a career or job skills.

    • Whether each party can work. The judge is more likely to award spousal support to a person who can’t work or is unlikely to find work. Spousal support might be short term to give the person time to finish school or gain job skills.

    • How much property each party is getting in the divorce and whether the property is “liquid.” The parties' property and debts are divided in a divorce case. When deciding whether one person needs spousal support, judges consider the type and amount of property each party is getting. A person is normally not expected to use their property award to pay everyday living expenses. It may be appropriate for the judge to award spousal support to a party who is getting mostly non-cash assets.

    • The ages of the parties. An older person who has not worked during the marriage is more likely to need spousal support. But if the other spouse is retired and living on a fixed income, that could weigh against awarding spousal support, especially if the party who would get the spousal support is younger than retirement age.

    • Whether either party can pay spousal support. The judge will balance how much the paying spouse can earn with the other spouse’s ability to support herself or himself.

    • The current living situation of the parties. The judge will consider things like each spouse's earning potential and career prospects.

    • The needs of each party. The judge will consider how the needs of each party contribute to their need for spousal support or affect their ability to pay spousal support.

    • The health of each party. A party's health is especially relevant if it affects their ability to work and meet personal needs.

    • The prior standard of living of the parties. The standard of living during a marriage is a starting point for deciding whether either spouse should pay spousal support. In some cases, a person has the right to continue to enjoy the same quality of life they had during the marriage. If divorce means one spouse will stay at the marital standard of living and the other won’t, the judge may use spousal support to even things out.

    • Whether either party has other people to support. The judge will consider how either spouse's responsibility to support others affects factors such as their ability to work or their ability to pay support.

    • What each party has contributed to the joint estate. The judge will consider what each party contributed to the marriage. This does not just mean contributing by earning money. If the other spouse contributed by raising the children, for example, the judge may consider the spouses' contributions equal.

    • Whether either party lives with someone else. The judge will consider whether a party lives with someone else and the effect this has on their financial status.

    • Fairness. The judge will consider what is fair and reasonable when deciding whether to award spousal support and what amount to order.

    The judge will make a decision about spousal support based on the factors above and anything else that may be important. The judge does not have to give the same weight to each factor. The judge must make findings on each relevant factor if one party requests spousal support.

    How Long Will Spousal Support Be Paid?

    Sometimes a judge orders spousal support to be paid all at once. This is called "lump-sum" spousal support. Other times spousal support is paid over time, in monthly or yearly payments. This is called "periodic" spousal support.

    Periodic spousal support can be temporary or permanent. Temporary spousal support can give a person a chance to get a degree or gain job skills. It can last for a specific number of months or years, or until a specific event. The event could be the death of either party, the remarriage of the party getting the spousal support, or when a specific amount of support has been paid.

    A judge is more likely to award permanent spousal support in long-term marriages. This is especially true if the party getting the support is older than 60, has little education or work experience, and has little or no income. Even if spousal support is called “permanent support,” the payments may end at retirement when the parties start sharing in pension or retirement benefits.

    Either party can ask for a change in periodic spousal support unless the parties agree in their Judgment of Divorce not to allow changes. A judge will normally only change spousal support when there are new facts to consider or when one party’s circumstances have changed. 

    Lump-sum spousal support is more difficult to change than periodic support. A judge will not change lump-sum spousal support because of a change in circumstances. One of the few reasons to change lump-sum support is fraud, which can be very difficult to prove.

    The Uniform Spousal Support Order (USSO)

    Whenever spousal support is awarded, the judge enters a special order called a Uniform Spousal Support Order (USSO). The USSO states the terms of the spousal support award. This includes how much will be paid, for how long, and how payments are made.

    How is Spousal Support Taxed?

    Periodic spousal support payments are generally taxable income to the person receiving the support and deductible for the person paying. Lump-sum spousal support is actually part of the property division and may be taxed differently than periodic spousal support payments.

    Your Judgment of Divorce must include the right language for spousal support to be taxed properly. This is not simple. If spousal support is an issue in your divorce, you may want to talk to a lawyer to get the best possible result. Use Find a Lawyer to look for a lawyer or legal services near you.

    Asking the Judge for Spousal Support

    It is not simple to convince a judge that you should get spousal support. If you think you might qualify for spousal support and want to ask for it in your divorce, you may want to talk to a lawyer. If you intend to ask for spousal support, you can use the Do-It-Yourself Divorce to begin your divorce. But the Do-It-Yourself Divorce will not help you with spousal support. Consider hiring a lawyer to ask the judge to order spousal support and finish your divorce.