Introduction to Alimony
Key Points
  • There are different types of alimony and/or spousal support and they are often paid for different reasons and lengths of time.
  • Alimony and /or spousal support is often integrated into the property distribution award. It is a consideration when dividing property in most states, unlike child support.
  • Alimony and/or spousal support is not as common as one might think.
  • Lump sum payouts are an option in lieu of a scheduled alimony and/or spousal support order.

Alimony is financial support paid to one spouse by the other, usually a husband to a wife. It may be paid in one lump sum or in installments and can be temporary or permanent. Courts increasingly view it as transitional. The payments are tax deductible to the payor and taxable to the payee. Alimony is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. In the United States, no two states award alimony in the same way.

Many courts have accepted the idea of using equitable distribution of property to meet future financial needs, and many equitable distribution statutes name alimony as a factor in dividing property. Some states consider fault or misconduct by either spouse a relevant factor in determining alimony, and some do not consider fault at all. While fault may still be a factor in determining alimony in some jurisdictions, courts today normally consider need, ability to pay, length of marriage, age and the health of the parties. Courts are mindful of the economic hardships a divorce may cause, for instance, to a stay-at-home mother who must rejoin the workforce.

Contrary to what many people believe, alimony is awarded in only about 15 percent of all divorces, according to Gayle Rosenwald Smith, a Philadelphia lawyer who specializes in marriage and family law. Historically, courts viewed alimony as the continuation of a husband's obligation to support his wife, but now alimony may be granted to either spouse depending on his or her ability to earn a living and the ability of the other spouse to pay. Alimony remains more common in situations where one parent wishes to stay home to care for children for a specific period of time.

More than $9 billion was paid in alimony in 2007, according to the IRS. According to the United States Census, approximately 97 percent of those paying alimony are men but the number of women paying alimony is rising.

Woman can no longer discount the possibility they may pay alimony, although while former husbands have in fact been awarded alimony, such cases are the exception, and usually happen when the wife earns a very high salary. Although there are no official statistics on this trend, wives today are the primary breadwinners in one-third of all marriages, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, leaving them at risk of paying maintenance should the marriages crash.

In the nearly 30 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against gender discrimination in alimony, few male beneficiaries have stepped forward to talk about it, but today, men in growing numbers are receiving alimony for the classic reasons that women traditionally did. A common argument is that they sacrificed their careers for the sake of their wives'. "Call it the dark side of the liberation coin," says Raoul Felder, a West Coast celebrity divorce lawyer.

There are alimony calculators that accountants and attorney's use to maximize the amount of tax-deductible alimony and net alimony for both parties so the IRS receives less.

Alimony payments must be properly identified and leave a paper trail. Receiving payments by personal check or by garnished wages from the spouses' employer is easily documented. A party should consider his or her spouse's age, job status and remarriage possibilities to ensure the realistic payment amount and dependability. For instance, a party should consider a former spouse's possible retirement for its impact on alimony payments. Divorcing parties should review IRS Publication 504, "Divorced or Separated Individuals," for information on how to determine and label alimony amounts.

Alimony, like child support, can be adjusted by court order when there is a change in the payee's circumstances, such as loss of employment or change in health. A court can't adjust the support without a party proving that he or she cannot afford to pay the agreed amount. So simply not paying for months is not recommended as the court can order a person to pay the amount past due plus future due payments.

Suggested Reading
The Spousal Support Handbook The Spousal Support Handbook
Spousal support is one of many issues that is often difficult for spouses to agree upon. Before negotiating and even signing an agreement regarding spousal support it is very important that you understand your rights and the repercussions of any actions taken.

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COMPLIANCE -- The enforcement of alimony payments is not like child-support, which has the "teeth" of wage garnishment, liens, and other enforcement mechanisms. In the event of failure to comply, the recipient can, however, return to court to force payment in a contempt action.
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