Who Must Pay Alimony?

C. Mitchell

When a married couple seeks a divorce, spousal support — sometimes called alimony — is frequently in contention. Alimony is a court-ordered payment from one spouse to the other that is designed to emulate the financial support a spouse received during the marriage. Traditionally, alimony was only awarded to women. Women still recoup more in spousal support worldwide than men do, but modern courts tend to focus more on economics than gender. It is not uncommon for a divorcing wife to owe her husband alimony, particularly if her earning potential is higher.

Alimony is a court-ordered payment from one spouse to the other as part of a divorce.
Alimony is a court-ordered payment from one spouse to the other as part of a divorce.

Alimony is always established by a court during divorce proceedings. Not all divorces include spousal support payments, however. Usually, payments are reserved for situations where the divorce will leave one of the spouses at a serious economic disadvantage. Courts may consider the age of the spouses, the duration of the marriage, the salaries and earning potential of each spouse, and the standard of living to which the spouses became accustomed in making the award. Whether the divorce is mutual or because of one spouse’s misconduct is also sometimes a consideration, although no one factor is usually determinative.

The main goal of spousal support awards is to maintain a level playing field between the parties. A high-powered career wife who was the main breadwinner for her family may owe her husband alimony if the court determines that the divorce will diminish the husband’s standard of living, particularly if his support helped her achieve her success. Similarly, a housewife who gave up her career during the marriage may be awarded support to compensate for the struggles she is likely to face re-entering the job market.

Alimony is not considered a part of the marriage property division, nor is it intended to cover child support obligations. Spousal maintenance is its exclusive purpose. Some payments are designed to be life-long, while others are set only for a specific time period — usually with the expectation that the recipient find work or begin supporting him or herself. Others are contingent on spouses continuing to live in a certain geographic area, or earning only a certain amount of money. Spousal support and alimony awards can usually be revisited in case of major changes, including layoff, promotion, new employment, and remarriage.

Few jurisdictions presume that spousal support is a right, and it is almost never granted automatically. It typically must be requested during a divorce hearing, and arguments must be presented outlining the reasons why spousal support is required or necessary on the facts. Most of the time, a divorce or alimony lawyer will present these arguments on behalf of divorcing clients. It is possible for parties representing themselves to successfully win alimony awards, though most choose the expertise and persuasion of seasoned attorneys.

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