Alimony is the legal term to describe monies paid by one spouse to the other as income. The purpose of alimony is to continue financial support for a spouse established during the marriage. It is separate from child support, and other monies ordered paid for the benefit of minor or dependent children. The characteristics of alimony are, as follows:
- It can be temporary or permanent,
- It is taxable as income of the recipient,
- It is tax deductible to the paying spouse, and
- Enforced by the contempt power of the court, rather than actions such as wage-garnishment.
In divorce or dissolution of a relationship, courts have the power to make adjustments between the parties in the nature of fairness. This power originated in old English law. Courts exercised powers of the King. Some courts were Courts of Chancery, with powers sometimes described as the conscience of the King. The idea was to do justice between parties. If no one were clearly wrong, yet some unfairness existed, the court would provide a remedy. In American law, this idea became Equity, the power of courts to do justice unto the parties. Equity is an essential part of divorce laws.
Courts have wide discretion over alimony, however, in most states alimony must have a specific purpose. In most states, the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act have shaped policies on alimony. This model law caused courts across the country to adopt irreconcilable differences as the basis for divorce. This was a shift from the earlier emphasis on fault. The role of alimony under the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act is to help rehabilitate a spouse, a term of financial support to enable independence. Under that principle, a court could also award permanent alimony. For example, a court could award permanent alimony to an older person, in poor health, after a long marriage because rehabilitation would be unlikely.
Under the model divorce law, used as judicial guidance by the courts in most states, factors to determine alimony are:
- The requesting party’s financial condition,
- The time needed for education or job training,
- Evidence of the lifestyle during marriage,
- The duration of the marriage,
- The requesting party’s age, health, and mental state, and
- The ability of the paying-spouse to pay while supporting one’s self.
Structured over time, courts use alimony to achieve a fair result. Courts can order alimony payments for a lifetime, a definite period, or an indefinite period marked by some event such as education attainment or employment. The basic pattern is for the period needed the spouse who provided support during the marriage will continue to do so.
Some current trends in the law of alimony will likely cause some important changes. Many courts are moving away from the earlier model of a male payer, to an economically oriented theory. Economic factors that courts frequently consider when granting alimony are:
- A time limit based upon the duration of the marriage,
- The time needed for a spouse to become financially independent, and
- Non-gender based decisions in which the superior income will likely pay to the lesser income.
Temporary alimony is the preferred approach because it is flexible to accommodate needed changes; the use of permanent alimony would be restricted.
There is also a national trend against permanent alimony. Many states have pending laws to restrict the use of lifetime alimony. Massachusetts passed a revision in 2011 which added guidelines for judges to determine amounts. These laws seek to reflect a reality of modern life; women have earning power and men sometimes face severe economic changes.
Always consult with a board-certified divorce attorney for legal advice about alimony.