Alimony in Divorce

Alimony, also called “maintenance”: or “spousal support”, is essentially a sum of money paid to a spouse for a handful of reasons. Typically, alimony is paid to a spouse because of a large income disparity or because one spouse is unable to remain employed due to no actions of their own (disability, life-long homemaker, etc.).  Alimony might be ordered to be paid during the divorce process as well as after the divorce is finalized.

Each state calculates alimony differently and the reasons to allow an award of alimony differ from state to state. Because it is extremely complex, divorce lawyers will often give a free initial consultation to determine if alimony is a possible issue in your divorce.

What Is Spousal Maintenance / Alimony?

Basically, alimony is a payment of money from one ex-spouse to another ex-spouse. Alimony may be awarded by the Court to either a husband or the wife. Awards of alimony have become increasingly more common as many states have moved to set formulas for determining how to calculate the amount and duration of alimony payments. The primary purpose of alimony is to help the other spouse support himself or herself and it is much more common in longer marriages. Most states do not have a minimum number of years required to obtain alimony.

Different Types of Alimony

Some states break awards of alimony (maintenance) down into specific categories, other states do not. Most states (but not all) break alimony down into one of three different categories: Permanent Alimony/Maintenance; Temporary Alimony/Maintenance; or Rehabilitative Alimony/Maintenance. Other categories of alimony are sometimes called Reviewable Maintenance or Lump Sum Alimony.

Permanent Alimony

This is common almost exclusively in very long-term marriages – like more than 20-years. It typically only ends when either ex-spouse dies or the spouse receiving the payment begins living with or marries another partner. Permanent alimony is also referred to as “Indefinite Maintenance” because the period of tie it lasts for is not specifically defined as it would be for other types where a set number of years is awarded.

Reasons for a permanent award of alimony might be that one person worked the tire marriage while the other spouse was a homemaker and never (or rarely) worked. Other reasons could be that there is a very large difference in income between the parties. Length of the marriage isn’t the only reason for a possible award of permanent alimony though, because an illness or injury could be a possible reason for a permanent alimony award. If a party were to become disabled and unable to ever work again, a marriage much shorter than 20-years might be able to fit into the permanent alimony category.

Temporary Alimony

This type of alimony refers to an award of maintenance that takes place during the divorce. Since contested divorces can last a long time (in some states, a few years), and one spouse might require spousal support during the pendency of the case, the court can award maintenance to be paid during the divorce. When this happens, the length of the maintenance award once the case is finalized is typically shortened by the payments made during the divorce.

Rehabilitative Alimony

This type of maintenance is normally awarded when one spouse needs specific time to make themselves self-sufficient. This likely means finishing some level of schooling or career training so that he or she can obtain a job that allows them to take care of themselves. An example would be a wife that leaves college in her sophomore year to stay home with a child. Now the child is entering pre-school and the husband has been the primary breadwinner. Rehabilitative maintenance might be an amount and time for the ex-wife to continue her studies, obtain her degree, and time to look for a full-time job.

Alimony Factors

Every state follows similar, but slightly different reasons for why alimony might be awarded. Similarly, every state uses different factors and elements of each individual case for deciding if alimony should be awarded during or after the divorce. The first step is determining if there is an actual need for maintenance, and that is based on several factors and rules. The rules that most state courts follow when determining if alimony should be ordered are the following:

  1. The standard of living during the marriage
  2. Length of the marriage
  3. Amount of assets each spouse will have post-divorce
  4. Each person’s age and their health
  5. Earning capacity of each spouse (now and in the future)
  6. Any non-marital assets either person has in their possession
  7. Parental responsibilities of each parent and any effect that has on earning capacity

Since alimony is based on multiple factors, there is ordinarily no standard amount awarded during a divorce. However, many states, such as Illinois for example, have written rules into their statutes that explain exactly how much alimony should be paid and for how long. In states like Illinois, the rules might say something like this for the amount:

  • 33% of the payors net income minus 25% of the payee’s gross income
  • The combined total income of the person receiving alimony cannot exceed 40% of the combined gross income of both parties. Example: Wife earns $70,000/year. Husband earns $30,000/year. Maintenance could equal $17,331. However, 40% of the combined income ($70,000 + $30,000 = $100,00.00) is $40,000.00. Therefore, the husband cannot receive, in alimony, more than $10,000 (which equals that 40% amount).

Maintenance rules in most states that use formulas are still extremely complex, inexperienced attorneys often make mistakes even. Then, the length of alimony still needs to be calculated. Using Illinois as an example, again, and assume the marriage is exactly 9 years long, the length of alimony would be: 9-years x .4 = 3.6 years of alimony. Other states calculate this differently, and some states don’t even use a set formula.

Next Steps

Divorces are complicated, emotional and can be a nightmare if things turn ugly. Alimony (spousal maintenance) is often one of the most contentious issues during a divorce. Understanding how alimony works will help people decide what options are best when the time comes to file and end the marriage. Experienced family law attorney help makes the process easier, especially when the possibility of having alimony awarded to one of the spouses. There’s never a reason to risk it – speak with a family law lawyer for a free consultation and make sure your rights are protected.

About The Author

1 thought on “How Does Alimony Work?”

  1. Diego Rodriguez

    I’m married, the question is of a mistress and my baby girl. Mother is not letting me see my daughter, using her as a pawn. Mother is illegal, my daughter was born here in Chicago. I support my daughter but never kept receipts. I am handicap and cannot work, I get an s.s.i check every month and 85% of it goes to my mortgage leaving very little left, to buy groceries at most. I want custody of my daughter, what can be done to help me.

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