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Understanding Alimony & Spousal Support During Divorce

Alimony is a payment made by one ex-spouse to the other to help the recipient maintain his or her standard of living following a divorce. Alimony, also known as spousal support or maintenance, traditionally lasted until the recipient died or remarried. Today when people divorce, spousal support is much less common. If it is granted, it's typically awarded for a short time period and may come in the form of a lump-sum payment.

There are several types of spousal support awarded during and after a divorce:

  • Temporary alimony is paid to one spouse during the legal separation, but before the divorce is finalized.
  • Rehabilitative alimony is paid to an ex-spouse who is in the process of becoming self-supporting. For example, restorative spousal support might also be paid to a stay-at-home parent until he or she is able to work outside the home again.
  • Permanent alimony is paid indefinitely to a former spouse, usually until the recipient remarries or either spouse dies. Permanent alimony was most common years ago when women more often stayed home to raise children.
  • Reimbursement alimony is designed to reimburse one person for expenses they incurred on behalf of the other. This spousal support is commonly paid if one spouse was the sole means of support while the other spouse attended school.
  • Lump sum alimony, also known as alimony in gross is a one-time alimony payment that's made regardless of circumstances.

How Divorce Judges Calculate Spousal Support

If you, your spouse and your lawyers are unable to reach an alimony agreement, a judge will hear both sides' arguments and then decide whether either party to the divorce deserves spousal support.

The exact guidelines vary from state to state, but when making spousal support decisions, divorce judges generally look at the following factors:

  • The length of the marriage
  • Each person's current salary and future earning potential
  • Each person's other income from sources such as interest, dividends and trustsWhether one spouse contributed to the education and career advancement of the other during the marriage
  • Whether one spouse was a homemaker during the marriage
  • If the couple has children, whether the custodial parent's future earnings will be limited because of their parental responsibilities
  • The age of each spouse and whether either spouse has any physical, mental or emotional issues
  • Whether either party was at fault in the divorce
  • Whether there are other economic circumstances that seriously affect either spouse

Your attorney can give you a rough estimate of how much spousal support a divorce judge is likely to award. However, be prepared that you may not receive any spousal support award. According to the American Bar Association, only about 15 percent of divorces today involve alimony payments.