If you are paying alimony you may eventually find yourself desperate to make it stop, and if you are receiving alimony you may be desperate for it to continue. Here are some basics on how that process works.
What is alimony?
In many states, the higher-earning spouse in a divorcing couple can be ordered to make payments to support the other spouse for a period of time. This has become less common, as the law has become more accepting of couples divorcing without fault. Alimony suggests a level of ongoing commitment to an ex-spouse that is somewhat inconsistent with no-fault divorce. Alimony is still awarded in many states, however.
Apart from income differences, there are some other reasons because of which one partner may be instructed to pay alimony to the other:
- When a couple has children, in many cases one partner devotes more time in child care and focusses less on their career. In this case, the court can order the other partner to pay alimony to them.
- When one partner contributes financially to the other partner’s development, for instance, bear some part of their higher education cost, then they can receive alimony in case of divorce.
- When one partner has some physical disability or health concern, then the other partner may be instructed to pay alimony to them.
Normal alimony timelines
Ever since the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act was completed in 1970, states have been moving towards alimony that is only awarded to support a spouse that lacks the ability to support himself or herself. It is also generally only granted for a short period of time, basically to give the lower-earning spouse enough time to get back on his or her feet.
Let’s consider the New York States, which has one of the most prominent remaining alimony laws, which the state calls “maintenance.” New York has typically been a bit of a free for all, where the judge has wide discretion on what type of support to allow. Now, there is a complex formula based on the income of each spouse that will be used to determine a guideline amount. A judge has to consider the guideline but can deviate. The amount of alimony chosen can serve to rehabilitate a spouse by offering a homemaker support while finding a job, for example. Alimony can also be more permanent to support a long-married spouse for the rest of his or her life.
The judge chooses the appropriate duration of the alimony by looking at a list of 20 factors. The factors are all over the map, and there is no clear explanation of how a judge is supposed to use them. They include things like income, length of marriage, age and health, need for job training, ability to get a job, lost earnings from being a homemaker, health benefits, and “any other factor.” Alimony will often be negotiated away during property division, though. For example, instead of asking for alimony many divorcing spouses will ask for a greater share of the joint savings account. This allows for a cleaner split, as many spouses do not want their livelihood to depend on steady payments from their ex.
Events that cut off alimony
Alimony is a stream of income, it can be cut off by any number of events:
- Death is the most obvious event that would cut off support.
- Another common terminating event is remarriage. This reflects the idea that alimony is supposed to protect a spouse from being financially devastated by divorce. Once they are in a new relationship, alimony is no longer needed. This can go beyond just marriage. In Virginia, for example, alimony will terminate “based upon clear and convincing evidence that the spouse receiving support has been habitually cohabiting with another person in a relationship analogous to a marriage for one year or more.”
- When the level of income that the alimony recipient changes for the better, then also alimony can be terminated. Alimony is provided as an aid to the financially weaker partner and when that partner no longer needs that kind of support, alimony can be terminated
- The person who is instructed to pay the alimony may not remain as financially strong as he/she was at the time of divorce. If he/she loses the capability to bear the alimony expense, then it can be terminated early.