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Alimony vs. Spousal Support: Key Differences


One issue that couples often contend with during the divorce process centers on financial support. Both parties can work together to reach an agreement on alimony or spousal support or in cases of contentious divorces, a judge may decide it. Is there a difference between alimony vs. spousal support? No, but it’s important to understand what these terms mean if you’re going through a divorce.

A financial advisor can help you create a financial plan to your needs and goals after a divorce. 

What Is Alimony?

Alimony is an outdated term that refers to money paid by one spouse to the other following a divorce proceeding. When two married people get divorced, one can seek financial support from the other. For example, if one spouse stayed at home to raise children while the other worked, they might ask their former spouse to continue providing support after the marriage ends.

State divorce laws may refer to these payments as alimony. It should be noted that alimony is not the same thing as palimony. Palimony is a term that’s used to describe money paid from one partner to another in situations where two people cohabitated but were not married.

Traditionally, alimony has been framed as payments made from an ex-husband to an ex-wife. That view, however, does not account for situations in which a wife provides support to a former husband or divorce cases involving same-sex couples. That’s why the term ‘spousal support’ is increasingly being substituted for alimony in divorce proceedings.

Is There a Difference Between Alimony vs. Spousal Support?

There’s no difference between alimony and spousal support, in terms of what it means for the parties who pay and receive it. Spousal support is a neutral term that makes no assumptions about the sex or gender of either spouse involved.

Whether financial support is referred to as alimony or spousal support in a divorce proceeding can depend on the terminology used in state divorce codes. State laws define alimony or spousal support and the circumstances under which it can be paid.

When the legal code defines alimony, it can do so in the context of fault. If one spouse is found to be “at fault” for ending the marriage because they cheated, for instance, that might open the door for the court to enforce higher alimony payments. In that sense, alimony becomes a punitive tool.

Spousal support, on the other hand, assumes that one spouse requires ongoing financial help after a marriage ends. It considers each spouse’s income and their potential to earn money following a divorce. There’s no assumption about what one spouse did or didn’t do to cause the marriage to break up.

How Is Spousal Support or Alimony Determined?

SmartAsset: Alimony vs. Spousal Support

When and how spousal support or alimony is paid depends on the state in which a divorce is initiated. If state law permits both spouses to seek an amicable agreement regarding spousal support, they can do so through their attorneys. In Texas, for example, divorcing spouses can enter into spousal maintenance agreements voluntarily. Texas courts do not issue orders compelling someone to pay alimony.

On the other hand, it may be left to a judge to determine whether to award alimony or spousal support. If a judge is responsible for determining whether to award spousal support or alimony, they can look at a number of distinct factors. For example, they may consider:

  • What led to the end of the marriage (in at-fault states)
  • Each spouse’s income and financial contributions during the marriage
  • Non-financial contributions (such as caring for children or providing emotional support while the other spouse pursued higher education a career)
  • Earning potential of each spouse and how long it might take an unemployed spouse to find gainful employment
  • How long the marriage lasted
  • Assets assigned to each spouse
  • Each spouse’s expected expenses once the divorce is finalized
  • Age and health of both spouses
  • Financial need on the behalf of the recipient spouse
  • Ability to pay on behalf of the spouse who’s expected to provide support

Some states use a specific formula for calculating alimony while others don’t. If there is no standard calculation, the judge can use their discretion to determine a fair amount.

In addition to deciding whether to award spousal support and the amount a spouse is required to pay, a judge can also set conditions on how long alimony payments last. For example, the judge might stipulate that support should continue until the recipient spouse remarries. Or there may be a five-year cap on support payments.

Once alimony or spousal support payments are court-ordered, the spouse who’s required to pay is obligated to make those payments on time. If someone fails to pay, they can be fined, incarcerated or both, depending on which state they live and how spousal support laws are enforced.

Alimony vs. Spousal Support vs. Child Support

Alimony and spousal support are paid to a former spouse for their financial needs. Child support is another type of domestic support that may be negotiated during a divorce proceeding.

Child support is typically paid to the parent who maintains majority physical custody of the child or children of the marriage. So, if a child lives with one parent Monday through Friday and spends weekends with the other parent, the parent who has weekend time only may be required to pay child support.

Broadly speaking, child support is intended to be used to pay for the child’s basic needs such as housing, food, education and health care. State law typically dictates that child support continue until the child turns 18 or graduates high school, whichever is later. Some states require support to continue until the child graduates from college.

Each state has a set formula for calculating child support payments. Generally, it’s based on how much time the child spends with each parent and each parent’s income. State laws can allow parents to seek an adjustment to child support after it’s been ordered by the court if there are significant changes to their income or living situation.

Similar to spousal support or alimony, failing to pay child support can result in legal action. Non-paying parents may be fined, jailed or both until child support arrears are paid.

Bottom Line

SmartAsset: Alimony vs. Spousal Support

There’s no difference between alimony vs. spousal support as far as what each one provides. If you’re going through a divorce and you think you may need financial help, then you might seek alimony or spousal maintenance payments from your former spouse. A good attorney or divorce financial advisor can walk you through what to expect if you’re planning to request either type of support.

Financial Planning Tips

  • Consider talking to your financial advisor about what paying or receiving spousal support could mean for your overall financial plan. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 eliminated a tax deduction for spousal support payments, and it also removed the requirement for spouses to report alimony payments received as taxable income. So, you don’t have to worry about any tax implications regarding spousal support if you were divorced on or after January 1, 2019. You may, however, want to talk to a tax professional about the best ways to minimize tax liability if your financial situation changes significantly following a divorce.

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