What is Alimony? - Definition & Laws

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
When married couples separate, living expenses rise as there are now two households. In this lesson, we will define alimony and how it helps provide financial stability for the spouse in need of support.

The Need For Spousal Support

Travis moves out of the marital home leaving Jill with increased expenses. Jill takes Travis to court, and after a full hearing, the court awards Travis temporary alimony payments. Jill is furious. Does that seem right? Shouldn't Travis be paying her alimony?

The answer is in the basis for alimony, and in the factors used to calculate it.


When a marriage ends, typically one party will need financial support from the other to make ends meet. Alimony is the legal obligation to make those payments.

The History of Alimony

Historically, the law didn't allow a divorce unless one spouse could show grounds for the divorce, which were infidelity, abuse, or irreconcilable differences. If fault was found, then the not-at-fault party could also use those grounds to get alimony. However, if the not-at-fault party was the main breadwinner, then alimony wouldn't necessarily be paid to him or her, but might go toward reducing an alimony award for the supported spouse (the spouse in need of marital support payments).

For example, Betty sued Fred for a divorce, and she alleged that he cheated on her. If she could prove that in court, then the court might award her alimony based on the other economic factors and increase that amount for Fred's misconduct.

Modern Alimony Laws

Today, just about all states have no-fault divorce laws, which means if either party wants a divorce, it's granted regardless of either side's reasons. With these laws came changes to how alimony is based. There is no gender-based consideration for either spouse. Instead, it depends on which party is the supported spouse, which is determined by the actual marital roles and earning capacity of each party.

The court will look at the following factors when considering alimony:

  • The earnings of both spouses
  • Their standard of living during the marriage
  • Whether one spouse supported the other during his/her education
  • The length of the marriage
  • The age, physical condition, emotional state, and financial condition of the former spouses
  • The educational or training need of the lesser earning spouse

Fault is now called marital misconduct, and it can be infidelity, physical or sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or just about anything that forced the non-abusing spouse to endure excess burdens during the marriage. In most states, misconduct by one party still affects alimony in two ways:

  1. If the supporting spouse, (the spouse the court requires to make payments), engaged in misconduct, the court can increase the payment.
  2. If the supported spouse engaged in misconduct, the court might not give that spouse pendente lite alimony, which is support during the time of separation, and the payments wouldn't start until the divorce was final. Or the permanent alimony award might be lowered.

So let's say Betty was cheating on Fred. If Fred was the supporting spouse, Betty might get a lower alimony award or might not get temporary alimony.

Temporary alimony can begin the moment a couple separates, and permanent alimony starts when the divorce is final.

Temporary & Permanent Alimony

A supported spouse can seek temporary alimony or alimony pendente lite, which starts the day the separation begins and ends when a permanent alimony award is granted. Permanent doesn't mean forever. Rather it means not temporary, and a permanent order is not ordered until a divorce is final and after a new hearing.

So let's say Fred is ordered to pay Betty alimony pendente lite as he made substantially more money. Then during the wait time, Betty went to real estate school, got her license, and became rich flipping houses. The court could determine that both parties can support themselves, and no alimony is needed. However, if, during the marriage, Fred had worked extra jobs, or maybe took care of the kids and ran the household responsibilities while Betty went to night school, and Betty didn't get rich until after the temporary alimony was awarded, Fred could get alimony.

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