Spousal Support

Spousal support refers to the obligation of a person to provide financial support to his or her spouse after separation or divorce. The purpose of spousal support, also referred to as “alimony,” is to reduce the unfair financial effects of divorce on a lower-wage-earning spouse, and to help ensure each spouse is able to maintain the same standard of living enjoyed during the marriage. Spousal support laws vary by jurisdiction. To explore this concept, consider the following spousal support definition.

Definition of Spousal Support

Noun. An allowance paid to an individual by their former spouse after they divorce or separate.

spousal support

Who Pays Spousal Support

The payment of spousal support is not required in all divorces, unlike child support, which is mandatory according to very strict state guidelines. The court has broad discretion in deciding whether or not to order spousal support, and in calculating how much is to be paid. In determining who pays spousal support, the court considers whether one spouse has a significantly larger income than the other, and whether the lower-earning spouse gave up a career to stay at home and care for the family. If this is the case, the higher-earning spouse is likely to be ordered to make monthly spousal support payments. To get an idea of how much spousal support may be ordered by the court, individuals may find a spousal support calculator online that is specific to their state.

Spousal Support Guidelines

Each state has specific statues, or spousal support guidelines, that determine how spousal support should be calculated. Some states provide the courts with more discretion on the amount ordered than others, as well as about in how long support should be paid. In determining the amount of support according to spousal support guidelines, the court may also consider:

  • How much each spouse contributed to the marriage, financially and non-financially
  • The length of the marriage
  • The standard of living throughout the marriage, and the likelihood that each party will continue to enjoy that same standard of living after the divorce
  • Who is at fault for the divorce, or the reason for the divorce
  • The earning capacity of each spouse in the future
  • One spouse’s need to get an education or training to obtain employment
  • Who will have custody of the children

Spousal Support Calculator

In calculating the amount of spousal support to be paid, the court uses a spousal support calculator program. This software is programmed with the specifics of the state’s spousal support guidelines, and helps ensure that the paying spouse is not ordered to pay more than their income can support. The spousal support calculator takes into account the incomes and expenses of each spouse, as well as the impact of taxes on each spouse’s incomes before and after spousal support. This is an important part of the calculation, as spousal support is tax deductible for the paying spouse, and must be counted as income for the receiving spouse.

Types of Spousal Support

There are different types of spousal support that may be awarded by the court, each depending on certain factors of the marriage and divorce. In some situations, a spouse may receive more than one type of support. The four types of spousal support include:

  • Temporary support is an order made at the time the couple separates, and is intended as a stopgap measure until the financial situation can be determined as the divorce progresses.
  • Rehabilitative support may be awarded when one spouse earns considerably less than the other spouse at the time of the divorce. Rehabilitative support is meant to be short term, until the receiving spouse is able to return to the workforce.
  • Permanent support is ordered during the finalization of the divorce, and continues until the receiving spouse remarries, or the paying spouse dies. This duration is rare, and usually reserved for couples who were married for a very long time.
  • Reimbursement support is ordered in situations where one spouse incurred expenses during the marriage, either for the other spouse’s education or for medical issues. Reimbursement support is intended to compensate the receiving spouse for what he or she sacrificed during the marriage.

Constitutionality of Spousal Support

Historically, spousal support obligations were imposed on husbands, but never wives. In 1974, William and Lillian Orr filed for divorce in Alabama, which state laws required that the husband pay alimony to the wife upon divorce. William was ordered to pay $1,240 per month in spousal support to Lillian. Two years later, Lillian filed a motion for contempt, stating that William was seriously in arrears in his support payments.

William challenged the court’s original order, requesting that the state’s law be deemed unconstitutional, as it violated is Fourteenth Amendment rights. The case went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979, where is the Court ruled that the ordering of support to be paid by husbands, but not wives, was indeed unconstitutional. This led to modern statutes that take into account the financial situation of both spouses in determining who should pay spousal support, and how much.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Custody – The protective care of something, or someone.
  • Divorce – The legal termination of a marriage.
  • Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.