Understanding Alimony: What Is It and How Can It Affect You?

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by Chris Torrone

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12.14.2022

Divorce often affects many things in our lives, our relationships, our standard of living, our social standing, our friendships, our location of residence, the schools we attend, our routines and commitments, our income and much more. 

Certainly, one of the biggest places divorce leaves its mark is in our finances. Alimony is one area where divorced spouses will need to educate themselves so they can be ready for what lies ahead. So, what is alimony anyway? Alimony is maintenance or spousal support. It is money paid, usually from one’s income, by one divorced spouse to the other. 

The payor spouse makes alimony payments to the recipient spouse. This alimony award is meant to help the spouse who is earning less, or the one who is being completely supported financially, to maintain a level of stability and monthly income until they can transition into regular work and self-sufficiency. It is also partially used to equalize income to some degree. 

Divorcing couple arguing over alimony and other issues

How is Alimony Determined?

There are a handful of factors, or requirements for alimony, that exist, and help the court determine how to make judgment. These include:

  • Length of the marriage
  • Standard of living
  • The need and the ability to pay
  • The time necessary to find suitable employment

Fault Not a Factor

Though understanding alimony laws in your state is a good idea, it is important to note that fault, of any kind, is not a determining factor in alimony. This means that things like affairs, certain abuses, or other mistakes and poor choices do not affect the alimony agreement.

The award of alimony is determined by the length of the relationship, how much and how long the support during marriage was, and how long the courts believe it will take for the supported spouse to find gainful employment. 

How Does the Length of Marriage Affect Spousal Support?

With regard to how long support will be paid, these three categories are used to make a determination. 

  • Short-term Marriage (up to 5 years)
  • Medium-length Marriage (5-25 years)
  • Long Marriage (over 25 years

In short-term marriages, length is less of a factor and it is usually determined that it does not play a role in the judgment. Hence, whatever income-making ability each spouse entered the marriage with, is what they leave with. In these situations, this temporary alimony is usually for a short duration, just long enough for the supported spouse to find work. 

In the longest of marriages, over 25 years, support often shakes out to being permanent alimony, or payments that last most of or the entirety of someone’s lifetime. Sometimes, this amount will decline over time, as the receiving spouse begins to earn more income.

Factors that affect long-term spousal support, though, may be the physical or cognitive inability of the supported spouse to work, or other factors. In these cases, support usually lasts until death (alimony for life).

In medium-length marriages, things can go a few ways. Courts recognize there remains a longer viable working period for each spouse. So, the supported spouse’s ability to increase their own income or develop a strong career is a more prominent factor than it is for older couples. Spousal support payments in this category sometimes lean toward one extreme or the other, either close to a short-term determination, or toward that of a long-term marriage, depending on how long the two were together. 

What about My Ability to Pay? Can I Afford Alimony?

The court looks not only at the need of the supported spouse, but at the ability of the supporting spouse. Need is flexible. Living standard plays a role here. For wealthier couples, the marital standard was likely higher, so the alimony will likewise be higher.

For couples with less income, the payments will be lower. So, the amount and duration of alimony determined within the divorce judgment will take each individual’s situation into account, both the dependent spouse and the one making payments. 

Washington State’s Patterns of Determination

Historically, in Washington State, the time needed for the receiving individual to find employment was a large factor in the determination of alimony. However, over time, this gave way to things like the need and ability to pay and a broader look at the goals of fair and equitable results, which took into account things like one spouse’s management of the home while the working spouse was away, and more. It was an attempt to equalize income. This method was confusing, though, and quite difficult to establish.

Today, courts often use a combination of determining methods, often rewarding smaller alimony amounts than they once did. It isn’t simply about equalizing incomes, but looking at factors like self-support and lost opportunities. 

Individual counting money and thinking about alimony and other matters impacting their finances.

Property Division and Alimony

Something else that affects alimony, and something you’ll want to discuss with your divorce attorney, is how the division of property will impact future payments of alimony. Since the goal is often to somewhat equalize income following divorce, property will play a role in this.

Often, the spouse with less ability to earn money will receive more of the community property. However, these days, if they award more property, then they award less alimony. The opposite is just as true, if receiving larger alimony payments, that spouse is likely to be given less of the community property. 

How is Alimony Paid

Payments are most often made monthly. However, instead of periodic alimony payments, the judge may order, or you may request to pay a lump-sum alimony payment (lump-sum spousal support) instead. Here, you’ll need to transfer a large sum of money or property at one time. 

Tax Issues Affecting Alimony

For a long time, alimony payments were taxable to the receiver and a tax deduction to the payor. This has changed and now the paying spouse is liable for the tax payments, while the receiving spouse has no tax liability here, presumably because they are seen as having less ability to produce a living income. This often leaves the paying spouse feeling mistreated, as if they are getting hit in two ways, both in monthly payments made and with the annual tax burden.

Enforcing Alimony

If your ex is refusing to pay court-ordered alimony, you have recourse. You may go back to the court to petition the judge to enforce the spousal support order. Often, you will file a “show cause” action, which is a motion. The court will set a date to determine why your ex isn’t making payments and what should be done about it. 

The offending spouse may face fines and penalties and may be ordered to pay retroactively to catch up on missed payments besides making future payments on-time. 

A gavel representing the court's judgment on divorce and alimony.

In Closing

As you can see, many things are taken into account when determining alimony. The complexities of spousal support and the context of spousal support, along with its final determination are affected by so many things including, child support calculations, the ability for the receiving spouse to find regular income or receive additional training, existing health conditions affecting one’s ability to work, social security, community property, taxable income, and more. 

Each of your attorneys and the family-law court will look at all determining factors to make a final judgment on the matter. No matter which side you’re on, work with your lawyer to help you find the best arrangement possible, since this will affect you, sometimes for years to come. 

Torrone Law helps individuals and families find resolution and peace of mind in divorce, custody, and adoption cases. Give us a call or email us today to get your questions answered and discover how much better life can be with an experienced, caring advocate by your side. 

To learn more about alimony, check out our frequently asked questions below. 

FAQ

What is alimony?

Alimony is maintenance or spousal support. It is money paid, usually from one’s income, by one divorced spouse to the other. This is done to ensure the receiving spouse, the one most often with less ability to earn income, has a liveable income until they can establish their own income through retraining and gainful employment or building a business.

What are the main determining factors in alimony?

  • Length of the marriage
  • Standard of living
  • The need and the ability to pay
  • The time necessary to find suitable employment

Who determines the alimony settlement?

Each attorney works with their client and with the opposing client to come to certain agreements. However, the final judgment will be made by the court, specifically a family-law judge, who will take several factors into account and make the determination they feel is right for that situation. 

Are alimony payments tax deductible?

Alimony payments used to be tax deductible for the paying spouse. Now, things have switched. It is the receiving spouse who is able to deduct the income they receive. 

Does division of property affect alimony payments?

Yes, it usually does. Oftentimes, if the supported spouse receives a greater share of the community property, they will be awarded less alimony, while an individual who is given a smaller portion of the property may be awarded larger alimony payments. 

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