No one wants to talk about alimony, and no one wants to pay it either, especially for a long period of time. But alimony is part of a divorce when there is a disparity of income and it’s a reality in those cases. However, there are ways to come up with an alimony amount you can live with.
- understand the reality of your situation
- examine your specific situation
- consider your spouse’s ability to work
- consider modification
- consider a lump sum
- agree to more than you can afford
- stop making payments without a court order
- be unwilling to negotiate
- insist on an unrealistic outcome
- agree to unreasonable terms
If you have been married for a period of time, generally seven years or more, and you earn more than your spouse, or you are the only partner working, chances are that you will pay some amount of alimony for some period of time. Going to court to fight paying alimony may be unrealistic and it may cost you a great deal more to fight and ultimately lose. Start out by speaking with a lawyer familiar with your state’s alimony laws so you can better understand your situation and your options.
The basic alimony formula is need and ability to pay. While everyone needs money, or thinks that they do, need is about realistic need for living expenses. This does not mean that every wish or extravagance must be covered, nor does it mean that the person receiving alimony has to downsize their lifestyle while yours stays the same. Taking a middle ground approach will help you to either settle your case or position yourself for a fair ruling in court.
Unless there is a medical reason or disability, the alimony receiving spouse will be responsible for some of their living expenses. This means that your spouse will be expected to work, either part-time or full-time. In some cases, income will be imputed to the non-working spouse. Income expectations should be realistic. You should not expect your spouse to earn a high level of income with little or no work experience and you should not expect your spouse to earn the same amount as they did when they stopped working, if that was years ago. You can also agree to a decreasing alimony amount which allows your spouse time to find work starting at a lower salary and work up to a higher paying job.
Alimony awarded by a judge is almost always modifiable, which means that the amount can be decreased or increased if circumstances change. In some cases, it makes sense to agree to a non-modifiable amount of alimony for a period of time. This gives you the certainty of knowing the end date and knowing that the amount you are going to pay will not change. The drawback is that, depending on the agreement that you reach, you may end up paying alimony to your ex-spouse when they no longer need it or you would otherwise be able to stop paying, such as if he or she remarries. It is important to weigh the pros and cons of such an approach and discuss the specifics of your situation with an attorney who is knowledgeable about alimony laws.
Like a non-modifiable alimony agreement, a lump sum is a total amount that is paid at one time, or in a series of non-modifiable payments. This approach is considered in long-term marriages where the only other option is to pay alimony for a permanent or indefinite term. Once again, this gives you the certainty of knowing how much you have to pay and that you would not have to pay any more. But there’s a downside. The “buy out” amount of a long-term alimony award may be very high and you may end up paying more under this approach than you would have paid by agreeing to modifiable monthly alimony.
Divorce is emotional, costly and draining. In some instances, a person may agree to pay a certain amount of alimony just to get the process over with or perhaps to appease the soon to be ex-spouse. There are benefits to settlement and finality, but not if you agree to something you cannot afford. A settlement agreement is like any other contract in that it is enforceable. But an agreement to pay support (alimony) has additional methods of enforcement and you could face severe penalties if you do not pay something you agreed to pay. It is also important to note that, although most alimony amounts are modifiable – unless you agreed to something non-modifiable – you will have to prove your case for modification. This process involves going back to court, which can be very expensive and it also involves having to prove a change in circumstances, which may or may not exist. It is very important that you carefully consider whether you can agree to pay a certain amount before you actually agree to it.
You may find yourself in a situation where you no longer can afford to pay the alimony you are required to. There may be job a loss or health issues. You cannot just stop paying, even if you talk to your ex-spouse about it and you believe he/she understands. You have a court-ordered obligation that can be enforced against you unless you take the right legal steps to modify the court order or suspend payments.
When you put aside the emotions (which is almost impossible to do on your own), a divorce settlement is a business negotiation. There are assets and liabilities to be divided and there may be a support obligation. Courts in most states treat these two aspects separately – the assets and debts are divided equally and support is decided separately. In certain cases, there may be a creative solution that works better. For example, your spouse may want to keep certain assets, the house, bank accounts, etc. These assets may be important enough to him/her to “trade” for alimony, or part of an alimony obligation. Seek the help of a lawyer who is a skilled negotiator to explore these options with you to see if there is an alternative that works better for your situation.
Most states are no fault states. This means that either party may ask for a divorce and the court will not look to blame either one for breaking up the marriage. It could be that your spouse was unfaithful or he/she simply decided to end the marriage even though you don’t want to. And that spouse is not asking you for alimony. This feels tremendously unfair. But the reality is that a judge will still award alimony if the circumstances call for it. This is not easy to accept, and you should seek assistance from a therapist, spiritual counsellor or trusted family and friends to help process your emotions through this time. But fighting this emotional battle in court is not a good idea. You will only end up paying more money to lawyers, and even possibly pay attorneys fees for both sides for taking a legally unreasonable position. And, in the end still have to pay alimony.
Many courts take the view that alimony should cover basic needs and necessities rather than extravagances. This is especially true when awarding long-term or permanent alimony. One of the reasons people agree to a shorter alimony term is because it is generally for a higher amount. There is no reason to agree to the highest possible amount of alimony for the longest period of time. In a negotiation, there is give and take and it would be one or the other of these two options.
Alimony is not something people like to think about or deal with, but it is important to understand your rights and responsibilities when it comes to alimony and divorce. Anyone going through a divorce should seek the advice of a family law attorney who has knowledge of alimony laws and experience in handling such matters.