What’s the Difference Between Alimony vs Spousal Support?
Spousal support is the fodder of celebrity reality TV shows and popular media, but it’s no longer the juggernaut it was.
In 2010, U.S. taxpayers claimed only wrote off $10 billion in alimony from a total of $142.892 billion in reported taxes. Alimony is grossly underreported on taxes, but even if those figures were correct, $10 billion in alimony payments is equivalent to only 0.069% of all income reported.
When you factor in the high divorce rate, it becomes clear that alimony isn’t a reality for many divorced couples.
Still, alimony remains a cause for concern among those considering divorce. The concern is in part because it’s poorly understood.
The legal terms alimony and spousal support are both used to describe maintenance payments paid from one spouse to another after the end of a marriage. But what’s the difference between alimony vs spousal support?
Keep reading, and we’ll share everything you need to know about alimony and who needs to pay it.
Alimony vs Spousal Support: What’s the Difference?
Is there a difference between alimony vs spousal support?
The short answer is no. Here’s how they differ:
What Is Alimony?
Alimony is a dated legal term that refers to “a husband’s or wife’s provision for a spouse after separation or divorce.” Simply put, it’s a maintenance payment. It has origins in 17th century English and is derived from the Latin word alimonia, which means nutriment.
Spousal support is a gender-neutral term that refers to “payment for support of an ex-spouse (or a spouse while a divorce is pending) ordered by the court.”
Why Switch the Words?
Alimony remains the most popularly used word when referring to maintenance payments between ex-spouses, but the term spousal support continues to grow in popularity.
The state of California began using “spousal support” as part of a system of non-confrontational language. It since spread to other parts of the country.
Spousal support is a more positive term with fewer negative connotations compared to the long history of alimony. Changes in the language of divorce proceedings became more important as divorce laws in the United States shifted.
For example, the introduction of the no-fault divorce in 1970 changed the landscape of divorce dramatically. No longer did spouses need to prove abuse or adultery to end their marriage. The State no longer saw reason to force two people to remain in a marriage when they did not want to be in a marriage.
In a no-fault divorce, there is no need for the filing spouse to prove that the end of the marriage is the other spouse’s fault. Any legal reason recognized by the state is available as grounds for divorce.
When two married people legally end their marriage using a no-fault divorce, they may say their marriage is dissolved. The process may be referred to as the “dissolution of marriage.”
Spousal Support Is Evolving
The language used to discuss payments made between former spouses after divorce isn’t the only thing changing. Our whole system is experiencing reform.
Popular belief about the alimony system remains skewed towards men paying women at the end of the marriage. Numbers reflect this perception: the 2010 census showed 3% of all 400,000 recipients are men. Three percent is a dramatic uptick from the 2000 figure when only 0.5% of alimony recipients were men.
While only 3% of alimony recipients are men, 40% of today’s households feature a female breadwinner. Though, anecdotal evidence and cultural attitudes play a role: judges are less likely to award spousal support to a man, but divorce attorneys also suggest men are less likely to ask for it.
Recently, more women are asked by the courts to pay alimony to their former partners when the woman was the primary breadwinner in the relationship.
Gender Roles Aren’t the Only Thing Evolving
Out of the two post-dissolution payments – child support and spousal support – child support is far more common than spousal support.
Even in the 1960s, only 25% of divorce cases mandated an alimony payment. Today, the figure averages at 10% with it dipping below the mark in some cases.
Now that women are asked to pay alimony more often, the case against maintenance is once again reopened. For anti-spousal support advocates, it’s unfair for men just as it’s unfair for women.
The concept of permanent alimony draws particular ire from both sides. Permanent alimony requires sending a check to the ex-spouse until their death.
As a result, divorced breadwinners are fighting back. Today, alimony is unlikely to be awarded without first being fought by a costly legal battle
Some states are also in the process of changing their alimony laws. Kansas, Massachusetts, and Texas all restrict alimony and support cases to a period where the money is used to help the lower-earning spouse get on track financially or to send them to school.
It recognizes that creating two new households out of one is financially costly and that both should have the opportunity to maintain living standards, particularly when the two former spouses intend to co-parent.
These states suggest that everyone can work, and so they should earn their own money after the divorce.
Some exceptions are included. Long-term spousal support is still sometimes available to couples divorcing in their retirement years or when the lower-earning spouse is disabled.
Additional changes in law attempt to make the system fairer for the paying spouse. For example, New York brought in new spousal support laws in 2016 that limited payments according to the duration of a marriage. It also restricts a court’s ability to set maintenance amounts according to future earning potential, which prevents alimony payments from growing as the workers’ earnings do.
When Might I Have to Pay Spousal Support?
Spousal support isn’t as universal as the media makes it sound. If you live in a state that’s recently reformed its alimony laws, it’s likely you’ll need to fight for alimony payments.
To understand when spousal support becomes relevant in a case, let’s return to the purpose of alimony. Alimony isn’t a reward for marrying a high earner or a consolation prize for a divorce.
Alimony exists to limit the economic effects of divorce for lower-earning spouses and avoid unfair circumstances. It exists so that if one spouse quit their job to care for children, they aren’t left out on the street when they get a divorce.
The purpose of alimony is to give the lower-earning spouse time to gain the skills and employment they need to maintain their standard of living.
Alimony amounts used to be determined by what the high-earning spouse brought home, but thanks to the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act, judges now look at:
- Age and physical, emotional, and condition of each spouse
- Length of time support is sought for
- Standard of living when they were married
- Length of the marriage contract
- Ability to pay
Awards vary by state and by the court, but if you earn significantly more than your spouse and you’re unwilling to help them set up a new household without court-mandated payments, then you may be sued for spousal support. To calculate your alimony in NJ here is your Alimony calculator NJ
What If My Ex-Spouse Was Abusive?
If you’re divorcing from an abusive spouse, things change.
Because of the change in attitudes about divorce, a no-fault divorce may be your only option in your state. In a no-fault divorce, you can’t cite domestic violence as grounds for divorce. However, you may still introduce it into evidence.
Abuse affects spousal support primarily when the abused spouse was financially abused.
Financial abuse is a type of emotional abuse and it takes many forms, but the underlying intent remains similar in many cases: one spouse uses the couple’s money to prevent the other from leaving. Some signs of abuse include:
- Micromanaging finances
- Cutting off access to liquid acids (taking away debit card, changing online banking passwords, removing names from accounts)
- Preventing a partner from earning money
- Providing a strict “allowance”
- Demanding repayment for household purchases
- Spending money on personal purchases and not providing for joint purchases
When a court sees financially abusive spouses, it often denies any alimony asked of the abused. Some states, like California, directly prevent you from having to pay spousal support to an abusive spouse.
If you’re going through a divorce with an abusive spouse, you may choose a criminal lawyer like The Benari Law Group
Do I Have to Pay Spousal Support?
If a judge mandates spousal support, you must pay for it.
However, spousal support doesn’t come with the same legal teeth as child support. Parents who fail to pay court-ordered child support may see their wages garnished or experience other forms of legal recourse.
The only way to force your ex to pay alimony is by holding them in contempt of court.
Spousal Support Isn’t What You Think
There’s no difference between paying alimony vs spousal support, but the whole concept has evolved significantly over the years. You’re less likely than ever to be on the hook for your ex’s finances compared to a generation ago, and if you’re a man, you’re more likely to receive support if you’re the low-earning spouse.
Are you seeking spousal support or hoping to get out of your payments? Visit our divorce lawyer directory to learn about your options.