Alimony payments are very hard to generalize. President Trump is reportedly paying $350,000 per year in alimony to his ex-wife Ivana, for one extreme example. On the other hand, many states will only award alimony in rare situations. When it is awarded, alimony will typically work to even out the incomes of a divorcing couple.
Alimony is sometimes called spousal support or spousal maintenance. The idea comes from the very old-fashioned notion that a man has an obligation to take care of his wife, even if they split up. As a result, most states would historically try to ensure that a divorced woman would have enough alimony to enjoy the same standard of living as she would when she was married.
Today, couples are generally allowed to split up without ongoing obligations to each other and divorce is generally thought of as a way to make sure that both spouses get to keep what they put into the marriage.
A classic alimony award in modern times would be to order a young doctor to make payments for several years to his homemaker wife who supported him through medical school. That is not about keeping up her standard of living, it is about repaying her for what she put into the marriage when splitting their limited assets would not be enough.
California example – Left up to the judge
In California, a judge has a lot of leeway in awarding alimony. The judge cannot blindly rely on a formula. Instead, the law requires the court to consider a whole range of circumstances, but the law does not give the judge any guidance on what they should mean. The first factor is the earning capacity of each spouse and whether it is enough to maintain the marital standard of living.
This includes looking at issues like the relative skills of each party and whether their earning potential was hampered by unemployment incurred to support the marriage (for example staying home while the other spouse went to graduate school). The assets of each spouse and their ability to pay is important. If neither spouse can afford to provide support then it does not make sense to order it. Likewise, if a spouse is receiving a large amount of property in the divorce then many alimony is unnecessary.
Judges must look at the length of the marriage. A spouse should not have to pay a lifetime of alimony after only a brief marriage. The parties age and health is important as well. No judge wants to put a sick spouse in the poor house, but if the spouse is young enough to easily get a new job then alimony might not be needed.
New York example – A clear formula set by law
New York, on the other hand, has tried to eliminate the guessing game through reforms passed in 2015 to set alimony through a more standardized formula. The spouses have a form provided by the state where they enter their annual incomes. The spouse with the higher income then may have to pay the other spouse maintenance.This alimony will be a portion of the difference between the spouses incomes, and it is meant to help even out the standard of living for each spouse for the future. The courts will generally only look at the first $178,000 in income, so court-ordered New York alimony will not be extremely large. The courts still have a lot of leeway in how long the alimony will last, though, as they make that determination after reviewing the factors similar to the ones employed in California.