Spousal support, also commonly known as alimony, refers to recurring monthly payments made by one spouse to the other spouse when a couple is divorced or legally separated. Although the laws and requirements for spousal support will vary by state, it is usually intended to assist the recipient spouse in gaining financial independence.
Spousal support payments also help to ensure that the receiving spouse can retain the lifestyle they have become accustomed to during their marriage or at any point before they were legally separated or divorced from the supporting spouse. In most cases, the spouse who has the higher salary will typically be ordered to pay spousal support to the other spouse. In other words, whichever of the two spouses is in worse financial condition will normally be the spouse who is allowed to collect alimony.
Generally speaking, a court may order spousal support payments in any of the following situations:
• If one of the spouses has a disability or other medical condition that prevents them from being able to support themselves or get a job;
• If there is a significant imbalance between the two spouses regarding their earning potential and salary;
• If one of the spouses was forced to quit their job to stay home and take care of the couple’s child or children, while the other spouse was permitted to work and earn a living; or
• If one spouse helped to support the other spouse while they pursued an activity that would lead to potentially receiving a higher income (e.g., if one spouse worked and the other attended a graduate program).
It is important to note, however, that spousal support payments will not necessarily last for the rest of the recipient spouse’s lifetime. For instance, certain conditions or circumstances may affect the amount they receive. It can even terminate spousal support permanently if such payments are no longer needed. Lastly, if you need assistance with either terminating or receiving spousal support, you should contact a local family lawyer or divorce attorney immediately for further legal advice on the matter.
Can Spousal Support Be Terminated Early?
There are some circumstances in which a spouse may be able to end alimony payments early. Again, these conditions and requirements will depend on the laws of the state in which a petition to terminate spousal support is filed. This may include the following:
• If the recipient spouse has died;
• If the income of the recipient spouse has substantially increased to the point they have either become self-sufficient or make more than the spouse paying alimony;
• If the paying spouse would experience economic hardship due to continuing having to make payments at such an amount; If the recipient spouse remarries or moves-in with another person (note that this is subject to exceptions based on the laws of individual states);
• If the recipient spouse has intentionally avoided getting a job or becoming self-sufficient;
• If the recipient spouse hid assets, property, or other income to ensure they would receive spousal support payments from the other spouse; and/or
• If the spouse making alimony payments has retired due to one of the following reasons:
I. They are well beyond the age of retirement;
II. Their employer forced them to retire (e.g., involuntary retirement);
III. The length and amount they have paid to the recipient spouse before they retired;
IV. Their overall health status; and
V. Whether they intentionally retired to terminate alimony payments earlier than anticipated.
What Can a Spouse Do to Terminate Payments Early?
As previously mentioned, the steps and overall process to stop alimony payments early will depend on the circumstances surrounding a specific case and on the laws of a particular state. Generally speaking, however, the paying spouse will need to obtain approval from a court before they will be permitted to stop paying alimony. They can begin this process by filing a court form known as a “petition for termination of spousal support” with their local family law court.
The paying spouse will also need to provide supporting documentation along with their petition, including the following information:
• The reasons as to why they are filing a request to terminate alimony payments earlier than what was initially decided;
• A recent income statement that discloses how much they earn in a given period, the number of income sources they have, how much income they earn per each source, and where their main source of income comes from;
• A list that contains recurring expenses, reveals what those expenses are, and how much the expenses cost over a certain time frame; and
• Various other documents that indicate a change in circumstances that would warrant the court approving their petition.
Once the appropriate paperwork is filed and the court filing fees are paid, the interested parties must be served a copy of the documents that were filed. After the necessary legal procedures are complete, the court clerk will schedule a date for a court hearing regarding the petition.
At this hearing, the court will listen to arguments from both parties and examine any evidence that will help the judge to make a clear decision on whether or not alimony should be terminated earlier than expected. The judge will then issue a decision based on the parties’ arguments and supporting evidence. If the judge decides to approve the petition, the paying spouse will no longer be legally obligated to make spousal support payments to the receiving spouse.
On the other hand, if the court denies the petition, then the paying spouse must continue to pay alimony to the receiving spouse as if nothing has changed. The court may also decide to reduce, as opposed to completely deny, the amount of alimony that the paying spouse must send to the receiving spouse each month.
There are also some ways to avoid paying alimony altogether, such as if:
• The couple had a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement that precludes the other spouse from receiving alimony, or at the very least, reduces the amount they can receive each month;
• A spouse can prove they make less money than the other spouse or are in a worse financial situation that is beyond their control (e.g., terminal illness);
• The paying spouse can prove that the receiving spouse has gotten remarried (subject to exceptions); and/or
• In some states, the duration of the marriage may affect alimony payments. Thus, if the duration of the marriage was extremely short, then a spouse may be able to avoid having to pay any alimony to the other spouse.
Issues or disputes involving termination of alimony payments can become very complicated; especially, if the two spouses are unwilling to cooperate with one another. Thus, you may want to consider hiring a local family lawyer if you need assistance with terminating or preventing the termination of alimony payments.
An experienced family lawyer will be able to help you modify and prepare the necessary legal documents that are required to petition the court for a termination of alimony payments. Your lawyer can also advise you on the best course of action based on your personal circumstances and can explain what rights you have under the law.
In addition, your lawyer can offer guidance on the likelihood of succeeding on a petition to terminate alimony payments and can devise a new plan in advance should the court deny your petition. Alternatively, if you are the recipient spouse, your lawyer can assist you in building a convincing case not to terminate spousal support payments as well as can represent you on the matter in court.
There are several types of alimony, but each state’s alimony awards vary. Typically, needy spouses can request any of the following types of support:
• temporary support while the divorce is pending
• rehabilitative support to cover expenses until the recipient becomes self-supporting
• reimbursement support requires the paying spouse to pay back any money the recipient paid for that spouse’s education or work advancements, and
• permanent support, which the court reserves for cases where the recipient is unlikely to become financially independent.
Depending on your case’s circumstances, the judge may award periodic (monthly) payments, lump-sum payments, or payments through property exchange. The judge will explain the terms of alimony in your final divorce decree, including the end date. If your circumstances change before the ordered end date in your court order, you can request a formal review by the court. The legal requirements to modify alimony will depend on your state and your specific divorce decree. For example, if you agreed that your alimony award was non-modifiable, even a significant income change won’t be enough to allow the judge to change the order.
Remarriage and Alimony
Alimony usually ends if the receiving spouse remarries, unless there’s a written agreement or court order to the contrary. However, judges in some states have the discretion to continue alimony even after the spouse receiving it remarries unless your written settlement agreement specifies that payment will stop if one of you remarries.
Typically, the paying spouse’s marital status doesn’t affect alimony, even if it involves supporting additional children. In most cases, it makes sense for support to end if the supported spouse remarries and no longer needs financial assistance. But it’s not always that easy. If your final divorce order is silent on what should happen if the supported spouse remarries, state law will control. Each state has requirements for terminating or modifying alimony, so it’s important to check your alimony agreement and final court order and your state-specific laws before rushing to court after discovering that your spouse remarried.
Every state’s legal definition of cohabitation varies. States that are silent on a definition agree that cohabitation exists when two people live in the same home in a marriage-like relationship, sharing expenses, without being legally married.
What Happens When a Supported Spouse Cohabitates with Someone New?
Although most states have clear rules terminating alimony when the supported spouse remarries, what happens if your ex-spouse is in a relationship but not married? The court may still terminate alimony, but it depends on where you live and your case’s specific circumstances.
Most states will reduce or terminate alimony if cohabitation significantly decreases the recipient’s need for support. For example, suppose you pay monthly alimony to your ex-husband, and he’s living with a new partner who is unemployed and broke. In that case, the court may not terminate your obligation to continue supporting your ex-spouse.
Other states will terminate alimony, regardless of whether the cohabitation impacts the recipient’s economic status. For example, in one Utah case, a husband asked the court to end support payments after discovering that his ex-wife was cohabitating with a new partner. The court evaluated several factors when determining whether the cohabitation resulted in a marriage-like relationship, including:
• the length of the relationship
• the amount of time the cohabitants spend together
• the nature of the activities the pair engaged in
• the interrelation of their personal affairs
• shared vacations, and
• their spending holidays together.
What Factors Do Courts Consider When Determining Permanent Alimony?
If you and your spouse can’t agree on permanent alimony as part of your divorce negotiations, you’ll probably end up in court, where a judge will decide both the amount and duration of long-term support. When looking at who should pay alimony, and in what amount, courts consider the extent to which each spouse’s earning capacity (potential to earn income) is sufficient to maintain the marital standard of living, taking into account a long list of factors including:
• the marketable skills of the supported spouse; the job market for those skills; the time and expense required for the supported spouse to acquire the appropriate education or training to develop those skills; and the possible need for retraining or education to acquire more marketable skills or employment
• the extent to which the supported spouse’s earning capacity is impaired by periods of unemployment incurred during the marriage to permit the supported spouse to devote time to domestic duties
• the extent to which the supported spouse contributed to the paying spouse’s attainment of an education, training, career, or license
• the paying spouse’s ability to pay alimony (taking into account the paying spouse’s earning capacity, earned and unearned income, assets, and standard of living)
• both spouses’ financial needs based on the marital standard of living
• both spouses’ obligations (debts) and assets, including separate property
• the length of the marriage
• the supported spouse’s ability to work outside the home without excessively interfering with the interests of any dependent children in his or her custody, and
• the age and health of the spouses.
How Long Does Permanent Alimony Last?
The term “permanent” alimony is somewhat of a misnomer. Very few, if any, support awards will continue permanently. Generally, for short-term marriages (under ten years), permanent alimony lasts no longer than half the length of the marriage, with “marriage” defined as the time between the date of marriage and the date of separation. So, if your marriage lasted eight years, you may expect to pay or receive alimony for four years.
If your marriage was very short, permanent support may never become necessary. For example, if your marriage lasted only one year, you can expect to pay or receive alimony for six months; but this obligation may be met through temporary support payments. For marriages over ten years, there’s no hard-and-fast rule for figuring out how long alimony should last. Judges will consider various factors in order to place the supported spouse in a position as close as possible to the marital standard of living, until that spouse can reasonably become self-supporting.
After the divorce is final, alimony will continue as stated in your “marital settlement agreement” (a written agreement between spouses that resolves divorce issues) and/or court order awarding alimony, unless one spouse requests a modification or termination of support.
Can I Modify or Terminate Alimony?
Yes. Either spouse may request that the duration and/or amount of alimony be modified (changed), as long as the original order (or marital settlement agreement) awarding alimony doesn’t contain any language that makes alimony “non-modifiable.”
There are two ways to modify alimony. First, you and your spouse can agree to change the amount and/or duration of alimony. If this happens, you should enter into a written contract that spells out the new agreement, and ask the judge to turn the agreement into an official court order.
If you can’t agree, you’ll have to head to court. The person who wants to modify alimony must file a motion with the court and show a “material change of circumstances” from the time the original support order was made. The involuntary loss of a job, for example, may constitute a material change of circumstances. If the payor spouse’s income has decreased through no fault of his or her own, a judge may find that it’s appropriate to reduce support.
Similarly, you may be able to completely terminate your obligation to make alimony payments, as long as you can show a change of circumstances that warrants termination. However, if your order whether imposed by the court or arrived at by agreement between you and your spouse – was made “non-terminable,” then you won’t be able to terminate it prior to the date it’s set to end.
Finally, a support obligation will automatically terminate upon the death of the supported spouse. If the supported spouse dies before the alimony obligation ends, the payor spouse no longer has to pay, and the supported spouse’s estate can’t enforce the alimony order to its own benefit.
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