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What Is Alimony: Financial Guide for Divorce


Alimony is a court-ordered sum that one former spouse must pay to another due to a separation or divorce agreement. You might sometimes hear about spousal maintenance or spousal support, which are other terms for alimony. This typically happens when the court decides that the lower income earner has earned the right to a minimum standard of living from the higher income earner. You can work with a financial advisor to help you navigate paying or receiving alimony by creating a financial plan. 

What Is Alimony?

Alimony is a predetermined sum of money that one person pays to another due to a separation or divorce. Alimony is the result of a court order when one partner has higher earning power than the other. A judge may not order alimony payments if the marriage was brief, such as less than a year.

The goal of alimony is to provide support for the lower-earning former spouse and help them maintain their standard of living. It is usually not permanent, although it can be in some cases. Alimony is also not the same as child support. While the former provides financial support to the former spouse, the latter helps support a child. When one former spouse pays child support, those payments typically end when the child reaches the age of 18.

How Does Alimony Work?

what is alimony

In general, the amount of the alimony payments varies according to the length of the marriage and the income difference between the two partners. For example, an 18-year marriage during which one partner earned six figures and the other had no income may result in sizable alimony payments.

Alimony can work in a few different ways. Typically, one party makes alimony payments each month. However, payments can also be weekly or bi-weekly. Either the two parties or the court decides how to handle the alimony payments.

Alimony payments typically last until one of the following requirements is met:

  • The former spouse who receives alimony is remarried.
  • An end date specified in the court order is reached.
  • A judge determines the former spouse receiving payments has not made a satisfactory effort to become self-sufficient.

In some cases, the court might order alimony payments to continue for life, or until the spouse receiving payments gets remarried. However, that is usually reserved for marriages that lasted a long time, such as 20 years or more. Of course, if one of the spouses passes away, alimony payments will end.

Who Pays Alimony?

People sometimes think that alimony is something a man pays to a woman when they go through a separation or a divorce. However, this is due to the role of the man as the breadwinner in a traditional marriage, and the woman as the caretaker. While these roles often still apply to a large extent, the difference in income between the two parties is what determines who pays alimony.

In other words, it is entirely possible for a woman to be responsible for paying alimony if she earns more than her male partner. However, judges may also consider future earning potential, so one party earning more than the other may not guarantee they must pay alimony.

For example, if a woman earns currently earns more than her former husband, but she is pregnant and will be unable to work in the future, she could end up receiving alimony payments from her former spouse. Every situation is unique, so one shouldn’t make assumptions about who will have to pay alimony or for how long.

What Happens If an Alimony Payment Is Missed?

Alimony can be a lifeline for someone who would otherwise be in a very tough spot financially. However, it’s not a perfect system. There is always the possibility that the party responsible for paying alimony misses a payment. Unfortunately, if this happens, there may not be much of an enforcement mechanism; the one who expects to receive alimony payments may not have much recourse.

It is possible for the one who is owed payments to bring a lawsuit against their former partner. However, that process is often costly, and it takes time. In the interim, they may be left with bills they are unable to pay.

But there are generally few options other than suing. Thus, it is especially important for the one receiving alimony to get back on their feet as quickly as possible. While that is often easier said than done, it is often the best way alimony recipients can protect themselves.

The Bottom Line

what is alimony

Alimony is a court-ordered sum of money that one former spouse pays to another due to a separation or divorce. In general, alimony is ordered when one party has higher earning power than the other, and the marriage lasted a long time, such as 10 years or more. But the amount of the payments may vary based on the length of the marriage and the size of the income difference. Payments usually end based on a certain criterion, such as an end date the court specifies or when the alimony recipient remarries, but every situation is unique and up to the judge involved.

Tips for Financial Management

  • Like everything in life, money can be hard when going through a separation or a divorce. However, a financial advisor can help you make the right choice. A financial advisor can help you put together a strategy to help you reach your goals. And finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors who serve your area. Plus, 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.
  • Alimony can help someone with little to no earnings make ends meet. However, alimony payments aren’t guaranteed, and someone receiving alimony can be in a tricky position if their former spouse fails to pay. Reaching financial stability, while not always easy, can help you avoid these difficult situations.

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