Alimony aims to mitigate any unfair financial impact of a divorce by providing a steady income for the non-earning or lower-income spouse. Part of the logic is that ex-spouses may choose not to work to support their families and need time to develop job skills to provide for themselves. Another purpose of alimony, particularly in high-net-worth households, may be to help a spouse maintain their standard of living during the marriage.
The courts have broad discretion in determining whether to award spousal support, unlike child support, which in most states has very detailed monetary guidelines. The family law judge determines how much and for how long, only if required.
The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, on which many states’ spousal support statutes are founded, recommends that courts consider the following factors when deciding on alimony awards:
Unlike child support, which is subject to periodic cost-of-living increases, an alimony order generally remains constant from year to year. Even if the ex-spouse receives large bonuses at work or a substantial raise in taxable income, the former spouse will not benefit from that increase in the same way their child would with an increase in support. However, if a paying spouse's income falls significantly to the point where they can no longer afford alimony, they may petition the court to reduce their alimony payment. A review of their tax returns may persuade the family court judge to reduce alimony — or not.
Although alimony awards are difficult to predict, determining whether the payer spouse will comply with a support order is even more difficult. Child support enforcement, in contrast, has the "teeth" of a wage garnishment, liens, and even arrest. Because alimony can be awarded through a court order, a former spouse who wants to collect owed alimony has access to the mechanisms available for enforcing any court order. To impose payment, the alimony recipient can return to Court in a contempt proceeding.
Alimony trends are also shifting as a result of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage. Alimony orders in same-sex divorce cases include a higher-earning spouse paying alimony to a dependent same-sex spouse.
The world has changed dramatically since divorce became common. There are now as many women in college as there are men. And many women, including mothers, work. On the other hand, there is still a gap between men’s and women’s wages.
Since women are viewed as less dependent now that most marriages include two wage earners and men may no longer be the primary parent. Spousal support awards and the courts have kept up. Alimony payments from ex-wife to ex-husband are becoming more common.
These social changes have led to a surge in the number of judges requiring alimony for “rehabilitative purposes,” which means that as long as the sponsored spouse (regardless of gender) gets further education, they can become self-reliant.
However, this is not an indication that there will never be a court order for long-term spousal support, especially if the spouse is elderly, disabled, or ill. If the divorce decree does not specify an end date for spousal support, the payments must continue until the judge decides otherwise.
In most cases, awards would be dismissed if the recipient remarries. Spousal support also ends when the payer dies, although this does not always happen automatically. Courts may order support from the payer’s estate or life insurance proceeds if the payee’s spouse is unlikely to be gainfully employed due to age or health problems.