Divorce Law

What You Need to Know About Spousal Support/Alimony

Married couples often take on different roles during the marriage. One spouse may work full-time while the other reduces their own employment or stays home full-time to take care of the house and children. When couples divorce, the issue of spousal support, also known as “alimony” or “spousal maintenance”, frequently arises in divorce cases.

The purpose of spousal support in most cases is to help maintain the lower-earning spouse’s standard of living following a divorce. Courts may also grant spousal support to help the recipient spouse obtain education or job training in order to enter the workforce. By ordering support, courts try to prevent one party from deriving an unfair financial advantage in a divorce.

Here are some common questions and helpful answers when it comes to spousal support.

When Do Courts Order Spousal Support?

Awards of spousal support are not automatic, and are actually part of fewer than half of all divorce decrees. When it does become necessary, some spouses might be able to reach an agreement on spousal support on their own and submit it to the court for approval. This may require negotiations by attorneys or through an alternative dispute resolution method such as mediation.

When making a determination on whether or not to grant spousal support, a court may consider several factors, including:

  • The financial resources of both parties
  • The standard of living during the marriage
  • The time it would take to find a job or complete education
  • The length of the marriage
  • Each spouse’s contributions to the marriage, for example, if one spouse enhanced the earning potential of the other spouse
  • Any marital misconduct, in some states
  • The number of children
  • Any additional sources of income
  • Tax implications and consequences
  • Ownership of the marital home

You should be aware that if a court or divorce decree does not grant spousal support in the decree, you normally can’t get spousal support later.

How Is Spousal Support Calculated?

While child support calculations usually must adhere to strict statutory guidelines, courts have more discretion when ordering spousal support. If the court does order an award of support, it will determine the amount by looking at the relative incomes of both parties as well as the ability to pay. In some states, the judge may use statutory guidelines for amounts to determine how much to order.

Normally, the court will order one ex to make periodic payments of a predetermined amount — such as $1,000 per month — directly to the recipient. In some cases, however, the order will be based on a fluctuating percentage, like 20 percent of the payer’s income, or one lump sum payment upfront.

How Long Does Spousal Support Last?

Spousal support may be ordered for a specified time period or indefinitely, depending on its purpose. Indefinite orders are rare, however. In some cases, people will only receive support until they achieve certain milestones, such as finishing their education and securing employment. In other cases, courts will award it for a specific number of years. The remarriage of a recipient will in most instances terminate the award.

How Are Spousal Support Orders Enforced?

If a paying party falls behind on spousal support payments or does not pay the ordered amount at all, then the recipient may pursue legal remedies. The judge may issue a wage garnishment, which automatically deducts payments from the payer’s paychecks. Other methods of enforcement could include bank account levies or the placing of a lien on personal property or real estate.

Can I Modify an Existing Spousal Support Order?

What if financial circumstances change for either spouse? Courts generally permit spouses to file motions to modify the alimony portion of a divorce decree. It is up to the party requesting the modification to prove a significant change in circumstances in either:

  • The needs of the recipient
  • The financial abilities of the payer

Keep in mind that most modifications can only be made retroactive to the time that the party filed the request, and not to the time that financial circumstances changed. An experienced family law attorney can help you prepare a motion for modification motion of spousal support.

Get Counsel From an Experienced Family Law Attorney

During divorce proceedings, a divorce lawyer can also help you negotiate the terms of spousal support. In many states, a court may order temporary spousal support while the divorce is pending and it’s imperative that you have an experienced attorney on your side no matter what stage of the proceedings.

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