Laws governing spousal support, often called alimony, differ by state and circumstances of the couple going through a divorce or legal separation. Different types of alimony depend upon specific circumstances of partners ending the relationship. Spousal support might be limited to a defined period of time, be awarded on a permanent basis, as reimbursement, or in a lump sum. In some states, the law applies to traditionally married couples and couples who live together. If a couple cannot come to a mutual agreement on alimony, the issue usually goes to court.
Temporary alimony, also called rehabilitative spousal support, can be sought during the time a couple is separated and before the divorce is final. Alimony payments could continue after the divorce has been finalized if a court determines one spouse needs financial help while obtaining training or education to become self-supporting. A time limit on the duration of support may or may not be included in an order for temporary spousal support. This form of alimony often undergoes periodic reviews.
The courts consider several criteria when ordering alimony, using the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act as a guideline. Judges look at how long the marriage lasted, the age of each spouse, and the physical and emotional state of each partner. They determine if a person can afford to pay alimony and still provide support for himself based on the standard of living during the marriage.
In many cases, alimony is paid to the parent caring for young children. The law does not specify when these payments should end, but the accepted standard assumes the stay-at-home parent will seek employment when a child attends school full time. In the past, alimony almost always went to mothers who did not work outside the home. As more women entered the workforce and fathers took over child care duties, alimony sought by men become more common.
Permanent alimony is considered rare and continues over the lifetime of the recipient or until he or she remarries. The amount of payments could increase or decrease with changing circumstances. For example, if the either spouse begins earning more or less, the terms of alimony might change. Retirement, medical bills, or an inheritance could factor into a judge’s decision to alter support payments. In some cases, permanent alimony continues after death and payments go to the deceased’s estate, especially when a former spouse is elderly or disabled when the divorce occurs.
Reimbursement alimony aims to repay one spouse for a disproportionate share of expenses during the marriage. This form of spousal support might apply if one partner works to provide for the family while the other spouse attends college. Judges look at contributions from the working spouse and the timing of the divorce. Alimony in these cases might consist of monthly cash payments or an award of property.
Couples who choose a lump sum payment to satisfy spousal support requirements usually select this option for tax advantages to one partner. Lump sum payments often settle a divorce without splitting up property acquired during the marriage. This form of support is valid even if the spouse who receives later remarries.
Alimony laws were enacted to promote economic equity and fairness when a couple divorces. Spousal support might be awarded if one partner can show undue hardship and the inability to subsist without alimony. All three forms of alimony—temporary, permanent, or lump sum—could be ordered by a judge.