The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term


What is alimony?

Alimony is court-ordered financial support from one ex-spouse to another, following a divorce or separation.  Also referred to as maintenance or support, a family court may order an alimony allowance for support to a divorced person by the former spouse, usually the chief provider during the marriage.

It is possible for alimony to be awarded without a divorce.  Such is the case between legally separated persons.

How is alimony different from child support?

While both alimony and child support are financial obligations from one ex spouse to another, there are important differences between alimony and child support.  Child support is intended to benefit a child, while alimony supports an ex-spouse.

Alimony might be paid with or without children.  Child support, by definition, means children are involved.  Alimony is meant to bridge the financial gap between two ex spouses that are now divorced, where one was able to earn more money than the other during the marriage at the expense of the other.  For example, if one person had to stay home with children while the other was able to work, then presumably, the person working was able to become more marketable in the workplace while the other lost skills.  Alimony would be used to increase the financial well-being of the ex spouse that sacrificed their marketability in the job market, and to give them time to become "self-sufficient".

Alimony payments are from the higher-earning person to the lower-earning person.  Child support could often be from the lower-earning person to the higher-earning person because it depends on who has custody.  Generally child support is from the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent.  Depending in the child support calculation, the income of the custodial parent may or may not be considered.  If the parents have joint custody of the children, child support is more based on the total income of the two parents and the difference in time that each parent has with the children.

Another difference is that alimony is a taxable event by both the payor and the recipient.  Child support is tax neutral.  It is not consider taxable income for the recipient or a tax deduction for the payor.

Lastly, how alimony is treated with regard to missed or late payments is vastly different from that of child support.  If a parent misses child support payments, the person is committing a crime in most states.  If the person misses or is late with alimony payments, it is typically not a criminal act.  If a person misses child support payments, that person is possibly committing a crime that could be punishable by jail time.

How is alimony determined?

In family law cases, alimony is based on the premise that a couple must both support one another.  Several circumstances affect whether a family court will award alimony.  While different states, jurisdictions, and countries have different approaches to calculating alimony payments, there are common factors that tend to apply to each location.  Such factors may include the length of time the couple has been married, the potential income of each individual, the ages of the parties involved, and specific needs of either person involved.  Below, we will discuss how each of these factors is considered by a court with regard to alimony.

Length of Marriage
Generally ten (10) years is the threshold where an alimony award is likely.  Couples that have been married more than ten years are assumed to have been relying on each other for support when compared to couples married less than ten years.

One person not working
If one ex spouse was working while the other was not, and the marriage exceeded ten years, then alimony is likely to be awarded to the non-working spouse.

Income difference
Even if both parties were working, if the marriage exceeded ten years and there was a vastly different income level between each person, alimony is much more likely.

Ages of parties
It is assumed that the older the person is that is to be awarded alimony, the less marketable they are in the workplace.  Alimony awards have two components: 1) an amount and 2) a duration. The duration for an alimony award is less likely to be for a long duration for a younger person than an older person.  It is assumed that a younger person will be able to make themselves marketable in the workplace at some point.

Standard of living
When a married couple separates, the standard of living that the couple was at when the separation occurred becomes the status quo for determining the standard of living for both people after the divorce is finalized.  While both parties are likely to take a financial loss following the dissolution of the marriage, an attempt to keep the standard of living reasonable close to the standard of living at the separation time is a goal of alimony.

Asset valuation
The assets shared between the two parities at the time of separation can be used to increase the liquid financial level of each party after the marriage is dissolved.  Many assets will be liquidated and the cash proceeds will be allocated by the court.  These liquidated cash proceeds will define the net worth of each person after the divorce, and that net worth will be considered for alimony awards.  If both parties are assumed to be self-sufficient, alimony is less likely.

How much will an alimony payment be?

Unfortunately there is no standard alimony calculator because it is a subjective amount that is determined by a family law judge.  The best way to determine how much an alimony award might be is to look at divorce cases in the area where the divorce is occurring, and investigate the different amounts of alimony that have been awarded by judges in those cases.  Nevertheless, it is still very subjective, and there is no way to know for certain how much an alimony award will be.

How long does alimony last?

Each state or country has a different approach to determine how long alimony payments should last, but there is no definitive answer to determining the duration of alimony payments.  It is important to consider "why" alimony is awarded when thinking about "how long" it will be awarded for.

The intent of alimony is make it so the person receiving the alimony award can become self-supportive.  This means they are intended to give the other spouse a chance to be able acquire the skills necessary to maintain the applicable standard of living that the judge assumes as the status quo.

Some alimony awards are of a fixed duration - the divorce decree specifies an actual end time.  Other alimony awards are indefinite - they have no fixed end time.  To have indefinite awards end, the paying party typically has to petition the court to end the payments.  A court may elect to end the alimony payments without the petition, but the reality is that the court is not likely to consider the issue unless the issue is brought before them.  A petition does this.

Remarrying can affect alimony.  If the alimony recipient gets remarried or moves in with another partner without remarrying, the alimony payment might end.  Again, the person paying alimony must likely petition the court to end the alimony due to the life change of the recipient.

There are instances where alimony may continue for the entire life of the recipient.  For example, assume the recipient is disabled and unable to ever work.  That person is never likely to become self-sufficient, and therefore the alimony may be awarded for life.

What are the penalties if an ex spouse does not pay alimony?

A difference between non-payment of alimony and non-payment of child support is that non-payment of child support is crime.  Non-payment of alimony is not a crime; however, it is still possible that not paying alimony could lead to jail time for the person ordered to pay it.

If a person is not paying alimony, the intended recipient must engage in litigation to enforce it.  When the intended recipient goes to court, they can ask to hold the other person in contempt of court.  If the person is held in contempt, then jail time is a possibility.  This leads to the difference between unpaid child support and unpaid alimony.  Unpaid child support is a crime, in itself.  Unpaid alimony is not; however, the contempt of court charge that might follow unpaid alimony payments is a crime.

A court has several ways of enforcing a contempt charge for unpaid alimony.  Jail time is one possible penalty.  The court may also suspend the driver's license or even a professional license of the non payer.  Wage garnishment or garnishment of IRAs is also possible.

Is alimony affected by having children?

Alimony is intended to help a lower-earning ex-spouse attain income from the higher income ex-spouse.  Because a recipient's ability to earn income is considered with an alimony calculation, having children might affect an alimony award, indirectly.  For example, if a parent is awarded custody of young children and that prevents the parent from being able to work, then the fact that children exist might indirectly affect the the duration of alimony.  Having the children may make it much more difficult to become self-sufficient, so in that way, children can affect alimony.

Does alimony get terminated after getting remarried?

The laws where a person lives will determine whether alimony gets terminated after cohabitation with another individual.  It will also depend on the wording of your settlement agreement or divorce decree, which may have language that calls for alimony to automatically terminate under certain conditions, such as cohabitation.

The definition of cohabitation will depend on where the parties live, as well.  It could range from simply living with another person of the opposite sex to requiring that they actually marry the other person.  Laws are constantly changing, so it is advisable that people research the laws in their state before making any assumptions, and also that they seek the help of a qualified family law attorney.

If alimony is terminated after cohabitation, can it be reinstated?

Different states have different laws, but in most jurisdictions alimony will not be eligible to be reinstated if it ends due to cohabitation.  Generally this means if a person gets divorced and is awarded alimony, but later has the alimony terminated because he or she married another person, then that person cannot have the alimony restart if that 2nd relationship fails.

It should also be noted that how a court defines cohabitation will vary from state to state, as well.  Some states may define it as being married.  Others might have a looser definition.


How is alimony handled with regard to income taxes?

Alimony is typically a tax deduction for the person paying it and taxable income for the person receiving it.  This is a significant difference from child support, which is not tax deductible.  Because tax laws are often changing and different states have different rules regarding alimony and child support, you should check with a tax professional about how alimony and child support should be handled in your tax return.

If an ex-spouse earns more money after the divorce, will alimony be increased?
The state or location where the parties live in will have different rules pertaining to how alimony adjustments will occur post-divorce, but alimony is only based on the financial situation that existed at the time of separation.


Alimony vs. Child Support
What are the biggest differences between alimony and child support?
How is alimony calculated?
While alimony calculation differ from state-to-state, this alimony calculator might help you.
Common questions about alimony
Learn just about everything you want to know about alimony from actual lawyers!

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