Alimony is the payment of money by one spouse to another upon separation or divorce. It is often just referred to as spousal support or maintenance. The purpose of alimony is to allow the lower-earning spouse to support themselves. Sounds simple enough, right? Actually, it's quite the opposite.

The method of calculating payments and the length of the support period will depend on many factors, including the state in which you live. In many states, no alimony is awarded if both spouses are in a position to support themselves. For relatively short marriages where there are no children, the courts often refuse to award alimony. If there are preschool children, however, the courts will usually award alimony to the spouse with physical custody of the children. Here, we'll take a look at the basics of alimony and how it works.

How Alimony Is Calculated

There are some factors that all judges take into account to determine alimony. These include the length of the marriage, the incomes and ages of each spouse, the marital standard of living during the marriage, the presence of children, and the assets available to each party after divorce.

The court will calculate each spouse’s net income by subtracting mandatory deductions from the relevant spouse’s gross income. Mandatory deductions include income taxes, Social Security payments and health care costs.

The court will consider both spouses' ability to earn. If a spouse has the potential for earning, the likely amount of that earning will be taken into account. If a spouse has in-demand skills and can take up employment, the courts will pay attention to this. It may be unreasonable to expect a spouse with custody of young children and no day care facilities to work away from home. However, the courts are aware that many employment opportunities exist for particular skills, which can be done from the home:

  • Virtual assistance
  • Writing and editing
  • Transcribing
  • Customer support
  • Data entry

A skilled spouse who does not attempt to seek employment may find that the amount of alimony is limited and the length of alimony payments shortened.

Age matters. The ages of each spouse and the ability to find work or train for a new job are significant matters. A judge will order more alimony for a spouse who is older and has no job skills than for a younger spouse who can get an education that will lead to a self-supporting role.

If the lower-earning spouse has medical or physical conditions that make it hard or impossible for them to work, this should be highlighted. If one spouse worked and supported the other spouse through school, they may be eligible to receive compensation in the form of alimony for all the years worked while the other spouse was being trained and educated.

The courts will allocate debt amassed during the marriage between the spouses, based on who gained the most from the asset that is associated with the debt. If the court orders a spouse to pay a large portion of the marital debts, it will usually be balanced by a reduction in the amount of alimony that the spouse is ordered to pay.

If the difference in income between the spouses is substantial and the marriage existed for a long time, a judge will order alimony. If the marriage lasted less than 10 years, the likelihood of paying or receiving alimony is less than if it was more than 10 years.

Can I challenge alimony payments?

This depends on the state in which you live. Spousal support and alimony payments are usually determined by a set formula; however, there are circumstances in which the alimony can be challenged.

In some states, alimony will automatically end when the spouse receiving it gets remarried or begins cohabiting with a new partner. Therefore, a paying spouse can bring this to the attention of the court.

A paying spouse can ask the courts to reduce or end the alimony if the lower-earning spouse becomes self-supporting before the end of the court-ordered support period. The lower-earning spouse can ask the courts for an extension of alimony if they are unable to become self-sufficient before the end of the support period.

If you are the would-be recipient of alimony, and suspect that your spouse is not reporting all income, you will need to obtain proof of that fact:

  1. You can testify as to what your spouse told you about their earnings, or ask witnesses to testify about your spouse's earnings.
  2. It also may be possible to demonstrate that earnings have been under-reported by proving that the marital lifestyle enjoyed over the years was paid for with earnings that would not have been possible on the amount of income declared by your spouse.

If the judge agrees, not only could your alimony increase, but your spouse could also be sanctioned for contempt of court.

The paying spouse could challenge how much spousal support you need, for how long and why you need it. This could occur, for example, on the basis that the once-dependent children have now grown, or if the medical conditions that the receiving spouse said was an obstacle to them working no longer exist.

If the circumstances of the paying spouse changes, for example their income has significantly reduced due to illness or redundancy, they can request an alimony modification order.

Talk to family law attorneys or divorce lawyers in your area about alimony awards in situations similar to yours. Alternatively, you may be able to find a divorce mediator if you and your spouse are amicable. The mediator can help you reach an agreement on alimony without incurring legal fees or going to court. Spouses have been known to agree to the alimony payments after they understand what a court would normally award.

A lawyer can also give you information about how to receive alimony or spousal support before your divorce is final and how much you are entitled to. Discuss with your attorney the tax ramifications of alimony payments or spousal support. (Unlike child support, the person receiving spousal support is obliged to pay tax on it; it is a deduction to the person making the alimony payment.)

If you are a DIY-type person, it may be possible to file for divorce through a family court or a domestic relations office without hiring a lawyer.