What Is Alimony?

Alimony is the court’s way of making sure one spouse doesn’t get to live high on the hog while the other claws to make ends meet after a divorce. A spouse who earns significantly more than the other is ordered to pay a percentage of his income to the one who earns less. Unlike in years past, the paying spouse isn’t always the man.

The Purpose of Alimony

An alimony order ensures that a spouse with little income or no income will be able to live a lifestyle reasonably comparable to that of her ex post-divorce, assuming he has enough income to share and still meet his own expenses. Alimony usually isn’t ordered when spouses earn about the same.

Factors That Influence Alimony

Alimony is often ordered after a long-term marriage so the under-earning spouse doesn’t suffer a dramatic drop in lifestyle because of the divorce. After all, she most likely contributed to the marital lifestyle during the marriage. After a short marriage, such as only a few years, alimony may not be awarded even if Spouse A’s income is triple that of Spouse B. Judges often take the position that one spouse shouldn’t suddenly be gifted with a windfall just because she was married for a little while, but exceptions sometimes exist if she has custody of the couple’s young children or if she contributed to her spouse’s income and earnings during the marriage. Each state has its own list of factors that a judge must consider when deciding whether alimony is appropriate.

Duration of Alimony

A court can order alimony temporarily or permanently. Temporary alimony is often referred to as “rehabilitative” alimony and it lasts for as long as the under-earning spouse reasonably needs to acquire job skills or find employment to support herself. Permanent alimony doesn’t necessarily translate to a “forever” obligation. It means alimony will continue on an open-ended basis until some circumstance changes, such as that, through no fault of his own, the paying spouse no longer earns enough income to share or the receiving spouse wins the lottery. If the receiving spouse remarries, this usually terminates alimony automatically. Taxation of Alimony If you receive alimony, it’s income to you and you’re responsible for reporting it on your tax return. If you’re paying alimony, the payments are deductible -- you don’t have to pay income tax on this portion of your income because it’s not available to you for your own use.

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