What Is Alimony?

Alimony Explained

An amicably divorcing couple tries to determine their individual incomes
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Alimony is financial support provided by one spouse to another when a marriage ends. A divorce doesn’t necessarily have to be final yet, nor does every divorce result in alimony being paid.

The exact rules for alimony can vary by state, but some federal tax rules apply as well. Payment of alimony depends on the specific circumstances of each couple and each marriage. Learn how alimony works, what types of alimony there are, and the process alimony requires.

Definition and Examples of Alimony

Alimony is money paid from one spouse to another after a marriage ends, in most cases, to provide for the receiving spouse’s “reasonable and necessary” financial support. It can be paid or received by either spouse, and either spouse is free to ask a judge to order alimony. However, asking for it doesn’t mean the judge will grant it. The spouse asking for support doesn’t have to be the one who initiated the proceedings by filing for divorce, either. 

Alimony is separate from child support. A spouse can be ordered to pay both.

It must be established that one spouse genuinely needs financial support, and that the other spouse has the financial ability to give it. Fault in ending the marriage doesn’t have anything to do with it, such as if one spouse cheated on the other. Alimony isn’t punitive; it’s all about financial need and the ability to pay.

  • Alternate name: Spousal support

The idea behind alimony is to level the playing field. Both divorcing spouses should be able to enjoy a lifestyle that’s at least similar to that which they shared during a long-term marriage.

Your annual salary might be $20,000, while your soon-to-be ex earns $120,000 a year. You comfortably shared a six-figure income while you were married. Alimony law takes the position that you should not have to radically downgrade your lifestyle because you’re divorced. The spouse with more significant earnings should contribute some of their money to the one earning less.

How Alimony Works

Alimony might be provided for in marital settlement agreement reached between spouses, or one spouse might petition the court for an award of alimony. It’s up to the spouse who’s requesting alimony to prove to the judge that they need financial support and the other spouse has the ability to provide it. The alimony order would be incorporated into the divorce decree just as though the judge had ordered it if it’s agreed to in a settlement.

Alimony might be paid for a set period of time, or it can be permanent (payable until either spouse dies). Either spouse can also go back to court at any time to ask that a permanent alimony order be reversed or vacated because circumstances have changed, although they’d have to prove the change in circumstances. The amount of alimony might simply be reduced, in this case, but not eliminated.

Alimony payments may end if the receiving spouse remarries.

Alimony might be paid in one lump sum or once a year, or it might be paid monthly or even weekly. Courts rarely order alimony after a short-term marriage (one to five years, in most states), and they typically only order permanent alimony after a marriage that’s lasted 20 years or longer.

Types of Alimony

A few types of alimony are intended to address different needs and circumstances.

Pendente Lite/Temporary Alimony

Pendente lite alimony is temporary support that’s paid while the divorce is making its way through the courts. It ends when the divorce becomes final via a court decree, although another form of alimony can replace it at this point.

Separate Maintenance

This type of alimony might be ordered by a court or agreed to between spouses when they break up but before anyone has officially filed for divorce.

There’s no requirement that a divorce petition must be filed before a spouse can ask for and receive separate maintenance payments. This type of alimony is common when spouses don’t want a divorce and opt for living separately or obtaining a legal separation. It can help in situations when the higher-earning spouse has moved out and left their partner in a financial bind.

Rehabilitative/Time-Limited Alimony

Rehabilitative or “time-limited” alimony is for under-earning spouses who need time to get back on their financial feet so they can then support themselves. For example, a spouse may leave the workforce for family reasons and need time to find a job. In this case, the court may order rehabilitative alimony until the spouse is financially self-sufficient.

A spouse asking for rehabilitative alimony must typically be able to tell the judge exactly what they intend to do to become self-supporting and how long it will take.

Reimbursement Alimony

This type of alimony is for spouses who have contributed significantly to the income of the other spouse. For example, a spouse may put their partner through college so the partner can earn an advanced degree and secure a high-paying job. A judge is more likely to order reimbursement alimony if the marriage ends relatively soon after the effects of the contribution.

How To Get Alimony

You must be able to establish some facts when you apply to the court for an alimony order. The required facts can vary by state, but some are very common.

You’ll have to give a full accounting of your financial situation without your spouse’s support, and you may have to prove the standard of living you enjoyed while you were married. You’ll most likely have to establish that your spouse has the ability to continue enjoying a standard of living equivalent to what you had when you were married, even if they were to pay alimony to you.

The standard-of-living component can be a bit tricky. A judge wouldn’t expect you to live in a motor inn while your spouse lives in a four-bedroom home. By the same token, they’re not likely to order sufficient alimony for a four-bedroom home for you if you’re living on your own now, because a single individual really doesn’t need four bedrooms.

You cannot receive alimony if you waive your right to it in a premarital agreement  and if you don’t ask for it during divorce proceedings.

Tax Implications of Alimony

Alimony used to be tax-deductible for the payer and reportable as taxable income by the payee. Beginning in 2019, it was no longer deductible nor included in the receiving spouse’s income. This rule applies to all divorce judgments or decrees entered after Dec. 31, 2018, as well as judgments or decrees that were entered by the court before then but were modified or changed in 2019 or later to reflect this law change.

Key Takeaways

  • Alimony is financial support paid from one spouse to another when a marriage ends.
  • Alimony can be permanent, lasting until the death of either spouse, or it can be ordered for just a limited period of time due to certain circumstances.
  • The receiving spouse must show a definitive need for financial support, and the paying spouse must clearly have the ability to pay it.
  • Alimony is no longer tax-deductible as of 2019, and receiving spouses don’t have to report it as income on their tax returns.