Explaining Alimony & Spousal Support

Aug 8, 2012 by

Explaining Alimony & Spousal Support

Once a divorce is finalized, an individual might have to pay spousal support – also known as alimony or spousal maintenance – to his or her ex-spouse for living expenses. Rules for modification or termination vary by state, but generally, alimony may be modified if it meets certain requirements.

Length of Support

Rules vary from state to state as to when support payments end. Some laws declare that payments end when the ex-spouse remarries or cohabits with a member of the opposite sex, though cohabitation means different things in different states. Other laws state that payments end when the paying spouse dies. If the couple’s divorce settlement agreement includes an end date for alimony, that may also terminate payments. In most states, once alimony is terminated it can’t be reinstated.

Modifying Payments

Sometimes one party wants to change the alimony award. Generally, only awards based on “need of support” can be modified, so awards that distribute marital property likely cannot be modified. If the couple’s divorce settlement agreement declared that alimony cannot be modified, courts will be reluctant to do so. But if the alimony was awarded based on one spouse’s need for the support, that probably can change. Rules regarding modification of alimony vary from state to state and they are quite complex, so legal advice is a necessity.

Change in Circumstances

If the alimony award can be modified, the party seeking modification will need to show a change in circumstances. Examples of changes in circumstances include the paying spouse’s involuntary unemployment, an illness that restricts the paying spouse’s ability to work, the receiving spouse’s ability to support himself or herself, and so on. The individual factors in each case – along with the state’s rules – will determine whether a modification is warranted.

Factors That Don’t Warrant Modification

There are also factors that don’t warrant modification of an alimony award, even if they can be considered a change in circumstances. Examples of these include the paying spouse’s bankruptcy filing, the paying spouse’s voluntary loss of employment or income, inflation or cost of living increases, or the paying spouse’s remarriage, among others, varying by state.

Enforcement of Payment

If the paying spouse doesn’t abide by the terms of the alimony award, he or she may be penalized by the courts – from wage garnishment to being held in contempt to a writ of execution whereby property is seized, sold, and the proceeds given to the receiving spouse. It’s unwise to refuse to pay court-ordered alimony.

Alimony awards are not set in stone. Though it’s difficult to modify one, it is possible with legitimate reason. Spouses considering divorce should research local rules and consult a legal adviser or attorney to determine their options.

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