Understanding Alimony Awards

    Understanding Alimony Awards

   When a couple decides to end a marriage, many decisions need to be made: Where will each party live? How will the property be split? Will alimony or support be provided? For many of the considerations during a divorce, the law and courts have set guidelines on how to proceed. When it comes to child support and alimony awards, a judge will likely weigh a number of factors in order to come to a fair and equitable plan.

    The term “alimony” refers to payments from on former spouse to the other spouse for the benefit of the spouse receiving the payment. Some states use the term “alimony”, while others use the terms “maintenance” or “spousal support”; each term means the same thing. Generally, alimony ensures that one party does not a leave marriage financially disadvantaged, for example, due to leaving the job market for a number of years to provide child care to the family.

    Courts have wide latitude to consider a variety of factors when awarding alimony and the situations of two families may be completely different. Many judges may start with the income and property of each party. The more income and property each spouse has, the less likely a court will find a need to award alimony. Conversely, the less income and property one particular spouse has, the more that spouse will need alimony. 

   Of course, alimony also depends on the ability of one spouse to pay. Alimony is most likely to be awarded when one spouse has substantially more property and income than the other. If the spouses' level of property and income are similar, alimony is less likely to be paid. Courts will take into account the division of property that will occur in connection with the divorce. Some courts may order a larger share of property to the less-prosperous spouse, in order to avoid or reduce that spouse's need for alimony.  

   One of the primary factors a court will consider when reviewing an alimony award is the present and future earning capacity of each spouse. Alimony is likely to be awarded in a situation when one spouse's earning capacity is significantly larger than the other's. To the extent that the earning capacity of the less-prosperous spouse would increase with additional education and training, a court may award rehabilitative maintenance to facilitate such training. (Rehabilitative maintenance or alimony provides a chance for education or job training for a given time so that the spouse who was financially dependent during the marriage can become self-supporting.) Courts are likely to award permanent alimony to a spouse with little or no earning capacity -- for example, in the case of advanced age or chronic or chronic illness. Courts will also take into account any limitations on a spouse's earning capacity due to years spent working as a homemaker. 

   On a similar note, the presence of young children at home makes courts more likely to grant alimony, at least until the children are in school full-time. Even after the children are in school, the court may continue alimony so that the caregiving parent may not need to work or only work part-time. This is more likely to occur if, during the marriage, one parent had been serving as a full-time homemaker. If both parent's had been working outside of the home during the marriage, the court is more likely to expect a continuation of the status quo.

  Although not as much of a concern as it was a generation ago, a couple's standard of living during their marriage is still a factor that courts will consider when setting alimony. If possible, the court may grant sufficient alimony and property for the parties to continue the same lifestyle that they enjoyed when they were married. But the reality in most cases is that the money will not go as far as it did during the marriage since it costs more to support two households than one. 

  A court may also consider the duration of the marriage; the longer it lasted, the more likely a court is to grant alimony, particularly if there is a significant difference between the earning capacities of the parties. Courts are less likely to grant alimony in the case of short-term marriages unless there are young children at home or the spouse is seriously ill and unable to work for meaningful wages. Alimony will normally not be granted for a time period that exceeds the length of the marriage--though such an arrangement will be ordered if, for example, the person seeking the support is chronically disabled. 

  In all of these cases, a valid premarital agreement, or prenuptial agreement, acts as a trump card in determining the level of alimony to be paid in the event of a divorce. Trough such agreements, the parties waive their rights to have alimony determined by the usual rules of the court. In many states, however, a premarital agreement that provides no alimony or very low alimony to the less wealthy spouse will not be honored if doing so would leave that spouse with no reasonable means of support. In that circumstance, the spouse that lacks the capacity for self-support is likely to be granted some alimony.