How is Alimony Calculated in the United States?

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Alimony (also called spousal support or maintenance depending on where you live), is a court-ordered transfer or money from one spouse to another spouse who is in need of financial assistance, following a divorce or lengthy separation. In the United States, the determination of who pays alimony and how much that person is liable to pay can vary from state to state. Therefore, this article is meant to be a hub for how alimony payments are calculated in the 50 states. This article will directly feature details on alimony procedures for New York. Furthermore, I have provided reference to alimony procedures in other states in the references section below.

Moreover, to fully educate our readers we have included both a history of the institution of alimony and a section about the future of alimony and how reforms across the U.S. are changing its application in our lives. (Hopefully for the better.)

General Considerations for Alimony Payments:

Though each state in the U.S. has its own guidelines for determining the details of alimony payments, there are a few determining factors that are common across many states. Some of them are as follows:

  • The needs of the spouse asking for support
  • The ability of the other spouse to provide financial help.
  • The length of the marriage
  • Each party's age and health status
  • Each party's present and future earning capacity
  • The student loans or training experiences of one of both spouses.
  • Whether the party seeking alimony is able to become self-supporting / self-sufficient.
  • Housework that one spouse has done to enhance the other spouse's earning capacity.
  • Whether the actions of one spouse inhibits the other's ability to earn income (in the case of domestic abuse for instance).


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History of Alimony

The word alimony originates from the Latin word alimonia which means nourishment or sustenance. The concept of paying some kind of alimony (or support) to one's ex-wife dates as far back as Hammurabi's Code (around 1754 BC). Such ancient forms of alimony were created to ensure that a woman had housing and basic sustenance after a divorce.

However the legal notion of alimony, as we understand it in America, was inherited directly from the law of the Ecclesiastical Churches in England. At that time in England's history, men held absolute title to all marital property. Thus, if a couple were to divorce, English churches often ruled that it was the duty of the husband to provide financial support to his ex-wife (otherwise she might become destitute / a burden to the state). ***Many legal experts have correctly stated that this type of alimony (strictly husband-to-wife) is a derogatory remnant of the past that served to reinforce women's place as second class citizens in pre-20th century England.***

However, it is important to note that alimony has been a topic of heated social and legal debates for hundreds of years. For example, if you check out the picture to the right of this section you can see the "To Make Marriage Less of a Gamble" ad dated April 5, 1915. This ad is the brainchild of an insurance copy that was offering to take on the risk of financial issues that result from alimony payments (or lack thereof).

How Alimony is Calculated in NY:

Alimony in New York is officially called "maintenance." Many changes have taken place in Maintenance Law over the past few years so let's break this subject down into it's component parts. First of all, there are two main categories of maintenance that can be given to a spouse. The first type is temporary maintenance; this is money that is given from one spouse to another during the course of divorce proceedings (before a divorce is finalized). The other type is regular maintenance, which is court-ordered payments that occur after the end of a divorce.

Temporary Maintenance:

Ever since 2010, temporary maintenance is mandated based on a very simple formula. The formula takes into account the income of the higher earning spouse and income of the lesser earning spouse. The form used to calculate this figure can be seen here: temporary alimony. However, it is important to note that temporary maintenance must be requested by the interested spouse. If it is not requested, noting will happen.

Regular Maintenance:

The considerations for regular maintenance (maintenance after divorce settlement) are much more complicated. Simply put, it is mandated that the court closely review 20 factors. Some of these factors are listed here:

  • The tax consequences of maintenance payments for each spouse.
  • How equally marital property was distributed in the divorce settlement between the former spouses.
  • The potential loss of health benefits after divorce settlement or the ability of each spouse to maintain health benefits post-divorce.
  • Any wasteful destruction or disposal of marital property by either spouse.
  • Any other factor that the court finds to be worth of just consideration.

It should be noted that there is no hard and fast method of calculating alimony that is standard across New York. Many things are left to the discretion of the court. There are those however who are working to change this [see section....The Future of Alimony].

The Future of Alimony

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Changes to the American social landscape have forced many states to review their policies on alimony payments and determinations. For instance, women now commonly earn as much (if not a little bit less) than men. Therefore, they are more likely to make alimony payments to their spouses than in the past.

Also today more marriages fail than in the past, and hence the length of the average has gone down. Given this fact, people are realizing that paying permanent alimony to someone you've been married to for only a short period of time seems more like a punishment than a redistribution of wealth or support. For these and many other reasons, alimony reforms are sweeping across America state-by-state.

One of biggest reforms sweeping states is the end of permanent alimony payments. In 2012, a new law was enacted in Massachusetts. The law effectively for rid of permanent alimony payments and set up a formula system (i.e. a formula is now used to determine the duration and amount of alimony payments). Since then, other states have either followed or are considering following Massachusett's example.



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Final Thoughts

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As you can imagine alimony, along with divorce settlements and child support, are hotly contested financial issues that occur when two people fall out of love. Our legal system tries to be fair, but a third party court system or a standard alimony calculation can still leave some people feeling angry, bitter, resentful and defeated.

Therefore, if you're having issues with your significant other, your first stop should not be to the lawyer's office. It is advised, before all else, that you try marriage counseling. Head off the root problems in your relationship before they mushroom into a financial debacle.

If counseling and all other attempts to save a once-happy union have failed; then please seek advice from a legal expert in your state (preferably one who specializes in divorce law). Only a lawyer in your state can point out the peculiarities of that state's alimony / spousal support / maintenance laws. For instance, many don't know that adultery is technically illegal in North Carolina. Therefore, admitting to infidelity in the course of a divorce procedure may actually lead you to pay more in alimony than you otherwise would (in the state of North Carolina).

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