Welcome to the final chapter in our four-part series. So far we’ve established in The Alimony Chronicles that spousal support is the payment of financial support, either in a lump-sum or periodic payments, from one spouse to another during a legal separation and after divorce. In this series, we’ve looked at the roots of spousal support, and the effects on husbands and wives.
In this, our final chapter, we will recap our previous installments by taking a broader look at alimony – how it works today, and what the future of spousal support may look like.
Changes In Family Law, Divorce Rates, and Average Age of First Marriage
The 1970’s brought dramatic changes in women’s rights and family law. spousal support was no longer automatically granted to the wife. Gender discrimination in awarding spousal support was banned, so alimony was not just for women anymore!
Women entered the workforce in ever-increasing numbers. Pay scales for women began rising. Changes in divorce law, especially the enactment of no-fault divorce in most states, led to a short-lived jump in divorce rates. After a big spike, the U.S. Census Bureau information shows a general leveling off of divorce rates by 2009.
In the 50’s, men were marrying at around 23. By 2009, the average age rose to 28 for men being married for the first time. The age of first marriage for women rose from 20 to 26 for the same time period.
So what does that have to do with alimony today?
In Part 1 of this series, I mentioned that some states have rules for a judge to follow in calculating spousal support. In others, it is up to the discretion of the court. Other common factors include.
1. Ability to Pay
If alimony is on the table for either party, the first thing to be looked into is the person’s ability to pay. The court will determine how much is left from the spouse’s gross pay after deducting mandatory deductions like income taxes and social security.
Not everything coming out of a paycheck will be deducted by the court, so you can’t go by the amount of take-home pay. For example, if money is deducted from a paycheck for voluntary deductions or savings, those may not be considered mandatory deductions and will be included in the allowable total.
2. Ability to Earn
The court will look at the ability of both husband and wife to make a living. And not just how much the person is making now. There is a big difference between someone who can’t work and someone who refuses to get a job. The judge will look into that.
Earning capacity, the ability to make a living in the future, is an important factor in calculating spousal support. On the one hand, the amount of support to be paid is affected by the court’s idea of how much the payer should be earning over time. On the other, the court will also look into the ability and circumstances of the person getting alimony to figure out how long it should take for that person to become self-supportive.
Short-term or rehabilitative support is awarded for a set time period to allow the more dependent spouse to update skills and find employment. At some point the payments will definitely end, so the spouse on the receiving end is motivated to do what it takes to get a job.
In cases of real hardship, the person getting rehabilitative support can ask the court to extend the payment period. Judges will usually not grant an extension without proof of financial hardship. The goal is not to take advantage of the payer.
The paying party can ask to have payments stop before the end of the period ordered if the recipient becomes self-supporting ahead of the established deadline. It works both ways.
3. Custody of Children
While child support is a separate type of award in a divorce case, the custody of the couple’s children is taken into consideration by the court when awarding alimony. The judge may consider the age of the children, the number of children, and any special needs of the children. Also, depending on the circumstances, the court may also look at the cost of daycare if the custodial parent has to work. And if there is daycare available at all.
If the court decides it makes more sense for the custodial parent to stay home, at least for a while, there may be spousal support awarded.
Death and Taxes: Only Two Things Are Certain
Alimony payments stop when one or the other dies. Getting around this requires special terms to be spelled out in the divorce decree. However, if it was the person ordered to pay that dies, the receiving party who is owed unpaid alimony before the payor died can make a claim against the responsible party’s estate for funds owed.
As far as taxes go, spousal support has certain implications for both sides. While payors are eligible for a deduction in the amount of support paid, the recipient must also claim this amount as income. For an up-to-date expert explanation of how the IRS evaluates support payments, see our recent article, Alimony and Taxes, by Janet Berry-Johnson, CPA.
The Future of Spousal Support
Couples today are older, better educated, and more financially stable when they marry. The majority of married women work outside the home. Many of these women make as much or more than the husband.
Women are no longer seen as helpless and dependent. Staying out of the workforce to raise children doesn’t change this. The expectation is that most women are capable of supporting themselves after a divorce.
As in the 1970’s when the no-fault divorce was adopted from state to state, there is a movement growing today to reform legislation, or abolish alimony entirely.
A good example of dramatic reform is the 2014 bill signed by the Governor of New Jersey that made major changes to the way spousal support will be treated going forward in that state. The sweeping changes affect the amount and timing of payments.
- For divorcing couples married less than 20 years, the period for support payments will not be longer than the length of the marriage except in unusual circumstances.
- Spousal support can be ended when the paying ex-spouse reaches full retirement age.
- Support can be terminated if the receiving spouse starts living with a new partner, even if they are not married.
Another example of significant reform is playing out today in Florida, where there is a bill in play that would change Florida’s allowable support provisions. If passed, the new rules would require all judges to use the same set of formulas based on the length of the marriage and the couple’s income to calculate potential alimony awards, and also includes a provision to assist support payers with a way to determine if the spousal support recipient is avoiding work, or not working to his or her potential.
These are just two examples of the new wave of family law and alimony changes that will impact divorcing couples in coming years. Stay tuned to Guyvorce for divorce support and updates on the latest trends that will affect you.
Each chapter of this series can be read alone. But if you are new to the series, you may want to check out Part 1, where we looked at the earliest examples of family law from ancient times and how that carried through to laws today. Part 2 tackles the evolution of financial support for women. And Part 3 looks at the changing spousal support landscape from a man’s point of view.
Alimony is still a hot topic.
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