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Basics of Spousal Support

Basics of Spousal Support

During a divorce or legal separation, couples must decide how their assets and liabilities will be divided and whether one spouse should give financial assistance to the other during and/or after the divorce. In some cases, a court orders financial assistance to be given by one party to the other in the form of spousal support, also called alimony or maintenance.

No two divorces have exactly the same circumstance, however, the standard is to give spousal support to the spouse who needs it in order to keep them on an equitable financial level with the other spouse. That being said, there is an underlying duty for each spouse to work towards being financially independent of one another.

How spousal support is determined

The three most heavily weighted factor in deciding whether spousal support will be awarded during and/or following a divorce or legal separation are as follows:

  • The recipient’s need
  • The payor’s ability to pay
  • The length of the marriage

The courts will also take into account the job skills, education, and employability of each spouse. For example, if you are employed and your spouse is not, a judge would likely order you to pay spousal support to your spouse. Lastly, spousal support is especially likely after a long marriage or if one spouse gave up career plans to support the other spouse or to care for their children.

How the amount and duration of spousal support is determined

With respect to the amount and duration of spousal support, divorcing spouses can agree on the amount and length of time spousal support will be paid. But, if they can’t agree, a court will decide for them. Bear in mind, however, that having a court decide the amount and duration of spousal support may require a trial and cost both spouses a lot of time and money.

Spousal Support is typically paid in monthly installments, but can also be paid in one lump sum payment. Once ordered, spousal support is paid for a period of time that is specified in the divorce decree or settlement agreement, or until a certain event takes place, such as:

  • The other spouse remarries, or begins to cohabitate with another partner;
  • The children have grown-up;
  • It is determined that the receiving spouse has not made a sufficient effort to become financially independent;
  • Retirement—in some cases; or
  • The death of a spouse.

Modifying court ordered spousal support  

In most cases, court ordered spousal support can be modified, but only if a spouse can show a substantial change in circumstances, such as a change in employment or income.

For example, if you are paying $20,000 per year in spousal support to a spouse who has a minimum wage job, and in the second year following your divorce, your spouse finds a job that pays twice as much as minimum wage, you may be able to have the amount of spousal support  reduced due to the substantial change in your spouse’s income.

On the other hand, if based on your limited income at the time, you were only ordered to pay $100 per month in spousal support, and a year later your income doubles, your spouse may be able to have the amount of spousal support you pay increased due to the substantial increase in your income.

Macro changes, like inflation or a recession, as well as, major injuries and illness, might also be grounds for a modification of court-ordered spousal support.

Contact an experienced family law attorney

Spousal support is a very gray and subjective area of family law. Therefore, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney to determine the likelihood that you will be entitled to receive (or ordered to pay) spousal support during and/or following your divorce. Most family law attorneys offer a free, co-cost, no-obligation consultation.


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