During a divorce or legal separation proceeding, a court may impose a financial obligation on one spouse to continue supporting the other spouse after the divorce or separation. This obligation may be called alimony, spousal support, or maintenance. It is not a punishment for the spouse paying it but simply a way to protect the spouse receiving it from serious financial deprivation. While courts today are less likely to award alimony due to the increase in the number of two-income couples, it is still a real possibility in all states.
Whether a court will order the payment of alimony usually hinges on the length of the marriage and the earning capacity of each spouse. If one spouse earns significantly more than the other spouse, the court will likely order the higher-earning spouse to pay alimony. This disparity might have developed if one spouse became the main breadwinner of the family, while the other spouse focused on raising children and running the household. On the other hand, it is less likely that a spouse will be ordered to pay alimony if the marriage was relatively short than if it lasted for a long time.
Typically, the higher wage earner will pay alimony to the other spouse in set amounts on a monthly basis until the other spouse remarries. The duration or amount of the payment may also be modified if the spouse receiving alimony does not try to become partially self-supporting or is no longer required by the children from the marriage to serve as a full-time parent at home. Of course, it also will end when one of the spouses dies or if a court sets an end date. The amount of alimony may be modified if the earning capacity of the spouse paying alimony dramatically changes.
If the spouses cannot agree on an alimony arrangement, a court will set its terms. It is better to reach an agreement between yourselves, if possible, rather than incur the extra cost of a court proceeding and face the uncertainty of an unpredictable outcome.
Rights of a Spouse Receiving Alimony
When deciding whether to award alimony, a court will consider your standard of living during the marriage and how much your spouse earns. However, the court will also consider your own earning capacity, which is not necessarily the same as your current income at the time of the divorce. You might be working part-time rather than full-time, for example, or you might be working in a job for which you are overqualified considering your training and skill set.
Sometimes a vocational evaluator will help the court estimate the earning capacity of a spouse seeking alimony, especially if the spouse has not been fully employed for a long time or has not worked in the highest-paid field for which the spouse is qualified. Evaluating the job prospects of a spouse can be difficult, so the expert advice of a vocational evaluator will help the court decide how easily you could get a job with a new employer. Regardless of how difficult it would be, a spouse receiving alimony must try to become financially self-sufficient, at least in part.
Unfortunately, a spouse ordered to pay alimony sometimes will try to dodge that obligation. This is a bad idea. The spouse intended to receive the alimony can go to court for a contempt proceeding or an earnings assignment order. If the other spouse fails to comply with this order and continues to resist paying alimony, he or she may face penalties such as jail time. Violating a court order is very serious, so getting an order against a recalcitrant spouse should greatly enhance your prospects of receiving alimony.
Importance of Keeping Alimony Records
Controversy often arises over how much alimony was actually paid or received. This can cause problems because alimony is taxable income for the spouse receiving it, and it is tax-deductible for the spouse paying it. Both spouses should record how much alimony they have paid or received. Otherwise, disputes may arise between them or with the IRS, which can be stressful and costly for the spouse paying alimony. If you fail to keep records, you could lose the tax deduction or be ordered to pay back alimony, even if you think that you paid the right amount.
Important records to keep for a spouse paying alimony include a list showing each payment, including the number of the check that you used, the date on the check, and the address to which you mailed it. You also should find a safe place to store the originals of these checks and mark the month that applies to each of them. If you choose to pay in cash instead of checks, you should keep signed receipts for each payment. While some experts believe that you need to keep these records for only three years, others suggest avoiding any problems by keeping them forever.
Even if you are the spouse receiving alimony, you should record each payment that you have received. Make sure to keep track of the date that you got each payment, the amount, the check number, the account number, and the name of the bank from which the money for the check or money order was taken. You also should make photocopies of the checks or money orders as well as any receipts that you signed for alimony payments in cash.