If you're facing a divorce, you'll have to face reality: Alimony payments (monthly support payments one divorced spouse pays the other) are alive and well in the American divorce system. And if you earn substantially more money than a spouse to whom you have been married for several years, there is a good chance you will be ordered to pay some alimony. On the other hand, alimony generally isn't awarded for short marriages or where you and your spouse earn close to the same amount.
If alimony is ordered, you will generally have to pay a specified amount each month until:
- a date set by a judge several years in the future
- your former spouse remarries
- your children no longer need a full-time parent at home
- a judge determines that after a reasonable period of time, your spouse has not made a sufficient effort to become at least partially self-supporting
- some other significant event -- such as retirement -- occurs, convincing a judge to modify the amount paid, or
- one of you dies.
As with most issues in your divorce, you and your spouse can agree to the amount and length of time alimony will be paid. But if you can't agree, a court will set the terms for you. Unfortunately, having a court make the decision means there will be a trial, and that can cost you a lot of time and money.
If you expect to pay alimony. The fact you have to pay alimony -- also known in some states as "spousal support" or "maintenance" -- to your ex-spouse doesn't amount to a finding that you are a bad person. Consider it part of the cost of entering a marriage that you probably thought would last until death parted you, but -- for reasons you didn't anticipate -- didn't. Alimony has been the law for more than 100 years, and while it is ordered somewhat less frequently these days, there is no sign that courts are going to stop making alimony orders for good.
If you expect to receive alimony. The question of whether you qualify for alimony is usually resolved by looking at your capacity to earn -- which is not necessarily what you are earning at the time you go to court -- how much your spouse earns, and your standard of living during the marriage.
You might also be required to make some changes in your life and work. For example, if you have a part-time job that doesn't pay well, you may be required to attempt to find full-time employment in a better-paid field. Experts called vocational evaluators are sometimes hired to report to the court on the job prospects for a spouse who hasn't been fully employed for a while. The evaluator will administer vocational tests and then shop your credentials with potential employers.
If your spouse refuses to pay. Finally, if you secure an alimony order but your spouse refuses to make the required payments, take immediate legal action to enforce the order through a "contempt" proceeding or an "earnings assignment order." Orders to pay monthly alimony have the same force as any other court order and, if handled properly, can be enforced with the very real possibility of obtaining regular payments. If necessary, a court may jail a reluctant payor to show that it means business.
To learn more about alimony and other issues arising in divorce, get Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow (Nolo).