Alimony Alimony, Spousal Support and Maintenance Explained

Alimony, often referred to as maintenance or spousal support, is a payment made by one ex-spouse to the other. While the concept is simple its implementation is often very complex. Spousal support determinations involve the application of state law and financial awards create a need for good financial and tax planning. The issues of primary importance concerning alimony are whether payments should be awarded and, if so, for what amount and what duration?

What is the purpose of alimony and spousal support?

There are several reasons behind the law providing alimony and support payments after a marriage ends. When two people enter into a marriage, there are times when one spouse will need to make sacrifices in order to help the household thrive as a unit. One common example is a wife who puts her professional career on hold for several years in order to raise the family's children. The law recognizes that this sacrifice has a value and that assistance may be appropriate to the spouse in a more challenging position. Alimony is not limited to women and men may request spousal support and maintenance where and when appropriate.

Under what circumstances is alimony awarded?

Alimony must be requested during divorce proceeding. The factors that determine an award for alimony are governed by state law that covers the marriage and divorce. A judge will follow state guidelines in making a decision although there is generally a significant amount of room left for judicial discretion. The most common factors that a judge may use to evaluate whether alimony or spousal support is warranted and how much is to be paid generally may include:
  • The duration of the marriage;
  • The educational background of each spouse;
  • The employment history, earnings and earnings potential of each spouse;
  • The financial resources of each spouse;
  • The contributions made by each spouse to the household;
  • The standard of living the couple were accustomed to during the marriage;
  • The emotional and physical health of each spouse, including age;
  • The expenses and needs of each spouse;
  • The ability of a spouse to make alimony payments;
  • Who may have custody of the children (child support payments are a separate matter);
  • Marital misconduct or fault, the behavior of each spouse during the marriage;
  • Tax consequences;
  • Other support obligations, such as one spouse's support obligations from a prior marriage and divorce.
Your state law may define a specific list of factors which may include, add or omit the items enumerated above.

How much will a judge award in alimony payments?

The amount of alimony generally awarded to a receiving spouse should cover payments for necessities such as food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, insurance and transportation expenses. The factors listed above will be taken into account when determining the amount for payments, if appropriate, as well as the duration.

There are no specific circumstances or set facts under which a judge is required to either grant or deny alimony and spousal support. A judge must be convinced that a spouse requires alimony payments. After an award for alimony is granted, the other spouse can petition the court at a later date to reduce the amount and duration of the payments.

How is alimony paid?

Alimony payments are usually made periodically, most common being monthly. Lump sum payments are rare and usually made pursuant to an agreement between the spouses. Periodic maintenance payments can serve as a bitter reminder to a paying spouse. A single lump sum payment may be preferred by a spouse who wants to put both the marriage and the divorce entirely in the past. A difficulty involved in such an agreement is the negative tax consequences to a spouse receiving a large, on time payment. Before confirming an alimony and spousal support settlement, you may wish to consult with an experienced divorce lawyer and accountant or tax planner. Structuring your support payments in advance can help you minimize tax liability.
Divorce & Family Law
Spousal Support
About author
Michael Wechsler
Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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Michael Wechsler
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