What is Alimony Based On? (How Courts Decide Alimony)

Most courts look at certain specific criteria before awarding alimony, and these standards vary widely depending upon the circumstances of each case. Keep reading to learn about some key considerations that contribute to how judges determine spousal support.

In some cases, deciding how much money should be paid for child custody and visitation is relatively straightforward. The court takes into account many things, including the parents’ finances, their ability to care for the children, and where they live.

But when it comes to divorce, an often overlooked consideration is whether there are any financial obligations that need to be met by both spouses after the marriage has ended. One such obligation could include paying or providing for basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing.

Judges Know The Importance of Supporting a Spouse After Divorce

Spousal support (or alimony) can become especially important if the supporting spouse was also employed during the marriage. In addition to helping cover expenses incurred while married, this kind of assistance may help ease the transition from being a couple back to single people living on their own.

Alimony differs from child support payments because these two types of monetary aid don’t go directly toward meeting day-to-day necessities. Instead, they allow each spouse who no longer wants to provide for himself/herself alone to maintain his/her standard of living without having to work again once separated.

Most divorcing couples start their new lives as newlyweds with little savings or none at all. Many times, however, couples find themselves shortchanging their retirement plans due to unexpected bills arising during the separation process or simply because they’ve been spending more than usual. This makes it imperative for courts to decide alimony.

Determining Alimony in a Divorce Case

Before judges in determine spousal support, they have to first determine if there is a case the spouse who filed for the spousal support order is entitled to it. In doing so, the judges utilize many criteria.

After looking at the facts, it may be that the applicant who asked for the alimony may not be eligible for it after all.

How Courts Decide The Kind of Alimony to Order

How Courts Decide Spousal Support

How Judges Determine Spousal Support

When faced with making major decisions about alimony, then, a judge may use the phrase “standard of living,” which means taking into account not only current expenses but also anticipated long-term requirements like college tuition fees, and health insurance premiums.

This approach to what alimony is based on isn’t something every judge follows, however. There are instances in which a judge won’t use this term at all. Let’s take a detailed look at the factors that judges take into consideration before ordering spousal support.

  • How Long The Marriage Lasted
  • The Income, Employment, and Viability of The Spouses
  • The Ability of The Spouse to Get a Job
  • The Needs of Each Spouse
  • Age of The spouses
  • Health Condition of Each Spouse
  • The reasonable expenses each spouse will incur
  • The spouse’s economic and non-economic contributions to the marriage
  • Fault leading to divorce
  • The economic opportunities lost by each spouse because of the marriage.
  • The ability of the spouse to pay the alimony
  • Any other factor a judge at the judge’s discretion

– How Long The Marriage Lasted

The “lifespan of the marriage” is the number one factor that most courts use in determining alimony orders. It’s all about the number of years/months that the couple was married before the divorce.

But then, if the spouse can prove to the judge that they lived together before the actual marriage, and most importantly, had a financial partnership, then the judge can extend the alimony. This proves that the judge can use his/her discretion to extend or reduce standard formats for spousal support based on circumstances.

In most jurisdictions, the standard of how courts decide alimony is between 60-70% of the length of the marriage. So if the marriage lasted very long, the alimony will also last longer.

Why Does The “Length of The Marriage” Matter?

The length of the marriage is a major determining factor for alimony because courts have come to understand that there are many cases where recipients of spousal maintenance go into marriage so they can quickly jump out and qualify for alimony.

So in such cases of judges determining spousal support, the amount and duration of the support will also be relative to how long the marriage lasted.

– The Income, Employment, and Viability of The Spouses

The Income, Employment of The Spouses

The Income, Employment of The Spouses

The earning capacity of the spouses is another main factor the judges use in deciding alimony. After all, there is no need to order someone to pay what they are not worth or are not earning, right? There are also instances where one of the spouses was not even engaged in any job while the marriage lasted.

The rule of thumb in courts deciding alimony in most jurisdictions is that the recipient spouse gets 30-35% of the difference between the gross incomes of both spouses. This is similar to how Child Support is calculated. Also, judges don’t apply this method to  “reimbursement alimony.”

Having said that, judges can also decide how much a spouse earns by “attribution of income.” This becomes necessary when a spouse deliberately engages in a job that pays less than the standard industry average or takes a job that seems easy on them but pays less. This attributed income is then used to denote their income.

– The Ability of The Spouse to Get a Job

While considering income, the judge may award some sort of support to an unemployed spouse who may need to undergo some training in order to be able to get employed. This is mainly in instances where one of the spouses was not working during the marriage.

– The Needs of Each Spouse

This is where the living standards come to play. A very wealthy marriage will mean that even when the couple separates, they would have gotten used to high standards of living. Courts realize this, hence do not expect either of them to go back to a life of penury after divorce.

Judges when determining spousal support usually check the standards the couples were in while the marriage lasted and determine the needs they are expected to require after divorce. This can include taking care of kids, learning a new skill to enable them to get on with life, etc.

– The Age of The spouses

The spouses’ age is also considered by the judges while determining alimony. They don’t want to order support for a thousand years against a spouse whose life expectancy is just a few years. This factor is dependent on the state alimony laws.

– Health Condition of Each Spouse

How Judges Determine Spousal Support

Health Condition of Each Spouse

The health condition of the spouses also counts a lot. A recipient spouse with a health condition needing big finances may be awarded more support than a healthy recipient.

– Spouse’s economic and non-economic contributions to the marriage

This is a very vital criterion that judges consider before awarding spousal support. They want to know if any spouse sacrificed specific things like employment or was engaged in domestic work, while the other worked. They mostly award alimony to the spouse that contributed such domestic help.

– Fault leading to divorce

In some jurisdictions, it is possible to claim that fault should be taken into account when determining spousal support. The support payment may be increased if the higher-earning spouse committed adultery, was abusive or was somehow responsible for the divorce.

If your delinquent spouse can only afford a specific amount of support, the court will not decree an absurdly high payment. More often than not, the spouse who gets assistance has their payments decreased due to their fault.

– The economic opportunities lost by each spouse because of the marriage.

Any spouse who lost opportunities to make economic gains during the marriage will most likely be awarded alimony by the judge.

– The ability of the spouse to pay the alimony

Judges realize there is no need to award support that the payor spouse cannot afford due to his/her financial situation. So no matter what the other criterion throws up, the ability to pay is taken seriously by the judges.

However, any reduction in alimony amount can be reviewed upwards if it comes to the court, probably after the payor has had a better economic situation.

– Any other factor a judge at the judge’s discretion

Many judges on their own bring in some criteria either after being presented to them or simply of their own thinking. They do this mostly to balance justice.

Other Factors the Judges Use To Determine Alimony

  • The tax burden on each of the spouses
  • The balance of hardships on each spouse
  • The assets and debts of the spouses including separate property
  • Will the recipient spouse be self-supporting within a reasonable period?
  • The ability of the recipient spouse to get a job without interfering with their children’s care.

Instances where Judges Deviate From Standard Limits

As stated, there are instances where judges can go out of the stipulated limits while ordering spousal support. The judge must decide that the deviation is necessary due to the peculiar nature of the case and requires him/her to use his discretion. These instances include:

  1. the 2 spouses were separated for a reasonable long time before the divorce
  2. there is an order on the payor spouse to get life insurance that makes the recipient spouse the beneficiary
  3. either of the spouses is chronically ill, very old, or has an unusual health condition
  4. one spouse cannot support themself due to a lack
  5. the spouses lived together in an “economic partnership” before the actual marriage
  6. the amount of taxes paid by one of the spouses
  7. the payor spouse provides health insurance for the recipient spouse, and
  8. the recipient spouse if abused physically or mentally by the other spouse, to the extent the recipient cannot support himself or herself.

How Much Alimony & Duration Can a Judge Order?

The amount of spousal support that a judge can award is dependent on the facts of the matter. No two divorces are the same, this is why judges determine each case by its own merits.

However, in most cases, it could be about 30% of the earnings of the higher-earning spouse. Again, we have to stress the importance of the standard of living in the marriage.

Similarly, the duration of the alimony will depend on the length of the marriage as stated above

Conclusion on How Courts Decide Alimony

As can be understood in this article, there are plenty of factors that judges consider when determining spousal support. These factors will help them give merit to each case, as there is no one rule for all alimony cases.

While this is a fact, there are also instances where the courts go out of the limits to make orders after specific factors that may be used by the courts in deciding what alimony is based on.

Deborah Kelly

Deborah Kelly

As a proud single mom who has seen it all, I encourage others by sharing my experiences & curating content on divorce, adoption, child & spousal support. My passion also includes spending quality time with my kids and giving back to my community.


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