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Understanding Alimony and Spousal Support

When a married couple divorces (marital dissolution) or legally separates, the court may award alimony or spousal support to one of the former spouses. The purpose of alimony is to avoid the unfair economic consequences of divorce by providing continuing income to a non-wage earning (or lower-earning) spouse, paid by the wage (or higher-wage) earning spouse. Unlike child support, which in most states is mandated according to specific monetary guidelines, courts have broad discretion in determining whether to award alimony and, if so, how much and for how long.

The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, on which many states' spousal support statutes are based, recommends that the courts consider the following factors in making decisions about alimony awards:

  • The age, physical condition, emotional state and financial condition of the recipient
  • The length of time the recipient would need support, for education or training, to become self-sufficient
  • The couple's standard of living during the marriage
  • The length of the marriage
  • The ability of the payer spouse to support the recipient and still support himself or herself

Although awards may be hard to estimate, whether the payer spouse will comply with a support order is even harder to gauge. Alimony enforcement is not like child-support enforcement. If a parent does not fulfill his or her child obligations, the court has the authority to institute enforcement mechanisms, such as garnishing wages and establishing liens against property or other assets. Alternatively, if an ex-spouse does not fulfill his or her spousal support obligations, the court cannot create such enforcement mechanisms. Instead, the recipient may have to return to court in a contempt proceeding to compel payment.

Alimony is often deemed "rehabilitative," that is, ordered for only as long as is necessary for the recipient spouse to receive training and become self-supporting. If the divorce decree does not specify a spousal support termination date, the payments must continue until the court orders otherwise. Most awards end when the recipient remarries and often when the paying spouse dies. However, termination upon the payer's death is not necessarily automatic; in cases in which the recipient spouse is unlikely to obtain gainful employment, due perhaps to age or health considerations, the court may order that further support be provided from the payer's estate or life insurance proceeds.

In the past, most alimony awards provided for payments to former wives by wage earning former husbands. Over time, the culture has changed and now most marriages include two wage earning spouses. Therefore, women are viewed as less dependent, they are also wage earners, educated, trained for employment and men may be the primary parent in the household. The courts treatment of spousal support has kept pace with the changes in our society and the awards for alimony reflect that change. A lawyer experienced in family law can help determine whether the parties in a divorce action are entitled to, or must pay spousal support, and can assist in resolving all related issues.

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