Welcome to the Alimony Chronicles. This is the first of a four-part series on the history of spousal support, changes over the years, what you can expect today, and most importantly, how it ain’t what it used to be.
Name That Pain
Alimony, as technically defined, is the legal obligation of one spouse to provide financial support to the other during a separation or after a divorce. It’s different from child support, although both spousal and child support payments may be ordered by the court simultaneously.
How It All Began
Contrary to what popular belief may be, it wasn’t somebody’s ticked off wife (or even her mother) who came up with the idea of alimony.
Some of the earliest examples of family law come from ancient Babylon and were discovered carved into a stone slab from 1754 BC when King Hammurabi decreed that if a man wanted to leave a wife who had borne him children, he had to continue to give her a portion of his income, crops and property while she raised them.
Once their kids were grown, he had to provide her a final settlement that was equal to the value of one son.
There were rules for the woman, too. The wife was bound by the law that only after her children were grown was she allowed to “marry the man of her heart”.
Fast Forward Several Thousand Years to English Law
Many old English laws grew from the Code of Hammurabi. The US was formed and its founders brought with them their legal code. In short, a lot of our laws hatched from that ancient text.
One of which was this:
- A man had a duty to support his wife until the marriage ended.
- He could leave his wife, but had to continue by law to provide her with financial support.
- Because marriage did not end until death, those payments had to continue until one of them died.
Actual divorce was allowed by the 19th century but only in cases of serious wrong-doing, like infidelity.
The rules started changing to protect women from situations where the husband had done something terrible and left her in the lurch after the marriage ended. On the other hand, if the wife’s behavior caused the divorce, she gave up the right to ask for money from the husband.
In the United States, as the country’s economy prospered (and men had much bigger paychecks), it was more and more common for women to receive permanent alimony after a divorce. It was especially true if the woman was a stay-at-home wife and mother.
This is the kind of spousal support often depicted in books and movies.
As women became more self-sufficient and became employed outside the home, family law shifted. Women’s lib brought about an era of wives with jobs, separate income streams, and the no-fault divorce. Judges automatically ordering alimony was no longer an ordinary practice.
Today, almost all 50 states have crafted laws granting some option for a no-fault divorce. Meaning that a quickie divorce can be granted if both the husband and wife agree that they no longer get along and have been living apart for a certain period of time.
Despite the option for an easy way out of an uncomfortable marriage, there are still divorces today based on “fault”. And although it doesn’t always factor into the equation, payments to the ex can be awarded in divorces despite fault.
Types of Alimony: It’s Not Just for Women Anymore
Several types were created to accommodate various types of situations. Here are a few.
Temporary alimony is court-ordered support payments to be paid before the divorce is finalized and while the couple is separated.
Permanent support is paid by the former spouse who earned higher income during the marriage. It is paid until one of them dies or the recipient remarries or cohabitates with someone new.
In this scenario, the higher-earning former spouse pays the lower-earning one for a predetermined period of time in order to allow him or her to get a job or complete an educational or training program.
Reimbursement alimony is money ordered to be paid back to the other spouse for expenses incurred during their marriage (like educational expenses).
For example, if the husband worked to support them both while the wife went to medical school, he may be awarded some reimbursement for his efforts that led to her success.
Lump-sum alimony is a form of marriage settlement where one spouse pays the other a one-time payment rather than periodic support payments or instead of dividing property the couple may have gotten during the marriage.
Each State Differs on Spousal Support
Alimony is dealt with differently in each state.
Some judges use complex formulas under statutory laws. Thus giving each side an idea of what that would look like going into a divorce proceeding.
Statutes in a few states are “silent,” with no specific rules set on spousal support. Leaving it entirely to the judge’s discretion can lead to a slug-fest in court. Both sides work hard to influence the decision.
In no-fault proceedings, monetary awards or property division decisions aren’t influenced by the couple’s marital behavior.
However, in a few places (even in no-fault proceedings), if your wife is already shacked up with her boyfriend she can kiss the idea of alimony goodbye, and vice-versa!
You may already know the more common factors affecting spousal support rulings by the court, such as:
- The age of the couple
- Length of the marriage
Very young people and those married less than two years are not typically awarded alimony. Granted, there are exceptions.
Marriages of ten years or more are much more likely to involve some form of support upon divorcing. Some states count the beginning of the separation as the end of the marriage, but some states do not recognize separation at all.
Judges think highly of one’s standard of living. They will order spousal support to help the couple avoid a dramatic, post-divorce reduction in lifestyle. Income disparities between partners get looked at closely in an aim to help both partners continue the same standard of living they enjoyed together.
Alimony may be awarded if one of the spouses is expected to have a significant increase in future income, like the earlier example of a doctor whose spouse put him through medical school and who will likely command a large increase in salary when his practice is established.
The state of each person’s health is another factor. If the husband or wife is mentally or physically ill and may not be able to work, the court will not want to leave that person destitute.
Yours, Mine and Ours
As our series continues, we will explore the how’s and why’s of spousal support from the wife’s viewpoint, the husband’s viewpoint, and then look at the nuts and bolts of alimony and how it affects both parties.
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