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Alimony | Spousal Support | Spousal Maintenance

Court Orders Providing Support to a Spouse After Divorce

Alimony/Spousal SupportThough not as common as it used to be, alimony, or spousal support, is still available in all 50 states, providing temporary or permanent support to one of the parties.

What Is Alimony?

Alimony is a legal obligation, pursuant to a court order, to pay some level of financial support to an ex-spouse. In some states, it is referred to as spousal support or spousal maintenance. Though parties can agree to some level of spousal support without the intervention of the court, it is customary for the court to issue a signed and enforceable order identifying the terms of the payment of alimony.

A party seeking alimony must generally put the request in a complaint or countercomplaint for divorce, asking the court to order payment of support. The court then reviews all relevant evidence and determines whether alimony is warranted, how much should be paid, and how often. The terms of support are then included in the divorce decree or a separate court order. A person who fails to comply with a valid alimony order may be held in contempt of court.

What Types of Alimony Are Available?

Alimony can take a number of different forms:

  • Temporary alimony—This type of support is granted for a limited period of time, as stated in the order. Temporary alimony is often ordered in situations where one spouse had marketable skills to be self-sufficient but stayed at home during the marriage. The temporary order is designed to ensure adequate income until gainfully employed.
  • Rehabilitative alimony—Similar to temporary alimony, this type of support lacks permanency and is typically in place until the recipient completes education or job training to allow for gainful employment. The court may schedule periodic reviews or require the paying party to file a request to terminate alimony when the recipient becomes self-sufficient.
  • Permanent alimony—In some situations, particularly when the parties have been married for a long time and one spouse has little or no experience in the workplace, a court may order that spousal support be paid for the remainder of the recipient’s life (or until the recipient remarries or cohabitates with another person). A grant of permanent alimony assumes that the receiving spouse will never be able to restore themselves to the lifestyle to which they were accustomed before the divorce.
  • Reimbursement alimony—A court may also order a spouse to pay alimony/support to reimburse the other spouse for working to put the other spouse through college or a similar work/professional program. With this type of alimony, the total cost of the educational expense is calculated and alimony is paid until that cost is reimbursed.

Though most court-ordered alimony is paid on a periodic basis—weekly, biweekly, or monthly—the parties can also agree to a lump-sum payment.

When Will a Court Order Alimony or Spousal Support?

Though the specific rules vary from state to state, courts across the country generally have the discretion to order payment of support or maintenance based on the facts of the case. Typically, a court will not order payment of alimony unless one party requests it. The criteria the court uses vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction but typically include:

  • Length of the marriage—Some states require that the marriage last a minimum period of time, often 10 years, before alimony is available.
  • Age and health of the parties—Generally, the older the parties and the more health issues faced by the potential recipient, the greater is the likelihood that alimony will be awarded.
  • Earning capacity of the parties—This includes income from all sources, including investments, inheritance, government benefits, personal injury awards, and gifts.
  • Standard of living to which the parties were accustomed during marriage
  • Ability of the paying spouse to honor the alimony requirement
  • Needs of the recipient
  • Extent to which the receiving party made career or other sacrifices to help the other party increase their earning potential

Tax Consequences of an Alimony Order

The extent to which alimony is taxable to the recipient or deductible by the payer depends on when the divorce agreement was executed. For federal income tax purposes, payment of alimony pursuant to a divorce or separation agreement signed before January 1, 2019, must be recognized as income by the payee and may be deducted from income by the payer. Pursuant to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, for any divorce decree signed after December 31, 2018, the recipient of alimony no longer recognizes the payments as income, and the payer can no longer take a tax deduction for payments made.

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