In a divorce, the court has discretion to award alimony or spousal support to either party.  The purpose of alimony is to keep both parties as close as possible to the financial standard of living they enjoyed during their marriage.  The divorce court takes several factors into account when determining an appropriate alimony award, including:

  • the recipient’s financial condition and needs;
  • the recipient’s earning capacity or ability to produce income;
  • the ability of the payor spouse to provide support;
  • the length of the marriage;
  • which spouse has custody of the minor children;
  • whether the recipient spouse worked in a business owned by the payor spouse;
  • whether the recipient spouse directly contributed to an increase in the payor spouse’s skill by paying for education or enabling the payor to attend school during the marriage; and
  • any fault or wrongful conduct that lead to the breakup of the marriage, including infidelity or abuse.

The court assesses a spouse’s financial need in light of the standard of living the parties enjoyed during the marriage.  The court also takes into account the amount and nature of property each party is awarded.  In determining the other spouse’s ability to provide support, the court takes into account the amount of debt taken on by each party in the divorce.

The reality is that divorce lowers the standard of living for most couples, and there is often not enough combined ability between the spouses to keep them both at the standard of living they enjoyed during their marriage.  Often, one spouse does not earn enough to cover her needs, but the other spouse does not earn enough to cover both his needs and her unmet needs.  In such a case, the court may use alimony to equalize the parties’ incomes, even if they are both left with less than they feel they need.  In this way, the court is at least trying to have both parties equally share the post-divorce financial pain.

Finally, the court must determine the length of time that one spouse would be ordered to pay alimony to the other in addition to the specific amount.  Unless there are unusual extenuating circumstances (e.g. where one spouse is permanently disabled), the court cannot order alimony for a duration that is longer than the number of years that they parties were married.  This is an outside limit, however, and the court may award alimony for a shorter period of time.  The court may order a gradually decreasing amount of alimony that is meant to allow the recipient spouse time to reintegrate into the workforce and increase his or her earning potential.  Any alimony award terminates when the recipient spouse dies, remarries, or cohabitates with another person (meaning that they are basically married even if not official).

For more information on other topics related to divorce, please visit our family law page or our frequently asked questions section.