Family law issues are getting an overhaul in New York State as lawmakers there have recently made some big changes in several important areas including the adoption of no-fault divorce and the legalization of same-sex marriage. While those two changes received most of the attention in the news, there was another big change made that did not get the same attention but could turn out to be just as important in the long run. New York State legislators adopted a formula that was created by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers in order to make alimony awards in the state fairer and more predictable.
In the past, in New York and most other states, alimony awards and payment schedules were up to family court judges who employed a list of factors that included the length of a marriage, the ages and health of both spouses, their financial situations, their future earning potential and the amount of their contributions to the marriage. Although the system seemed equitable, family court judges had wide latitude in deciding how to weigh the different mitigating factors and come up with a fair financial alimony award. The results were often unpredictable and there was really no way to know what might happen in court. The awards were inconsistent and legal proceedings were often complicated by the need for a spouse to prove they actually deserved alimony at all. Because divorcing spouses had no guarantee they would have enough money to live on their own after a divorce, many simply chose to remain stuck in unhappy marriages.
The updated New York alimony law now provides a way to minimize the financial uncertainties by establishing a mathematical formula to calculate temporary alimony while a divorce case is pending and also permits judges to modify the awards when conditions change or special circumstances are introduced. The New York formula now sets alimony at 30 percent of the higher-earning spouse’s income, minus 20 percent of the lower-earning spouse’s income. Total alimony awards are limited to 40 percent of the couple’s combined income under the formula as well. So far, just a handful of states are using a formula with numerical guidelines to set temporary alimony awards. However, no state has taken the plunge completely and applied a numerical formula to all standard permanent alimony awards that are paid on an ongoing basis following a divorce.
Although legal associations and family law organizations have suggested various different models of formulas for setting permanent alimony awards, most jurisdictions allow judges a fair bit of leeway in interpreting how they will be applied in divorce cases that present unusual circumstances. It seems logical that requiring judges to start with alimony formulas, and then apply discretion as needed would make the whole process a lot fairer for everyone involved and could help prevent instances where awards are uncommonly low or high.