What is the Difference Between Alimony & Child Support?

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet

Kenneth has a JD, practiced law for over 10 years, and has taught criminal justice courses as a full-time instructor.

Spousal and parental payments both support the needs of a family, but are based on two different legal constructs. In this lesson, we will define alimony and child support, and explore how each are determined.

Family Support Payments

After moving out several years ago, Todd voluntarily paid alimony and child support to his wife. Having recently finalized their divorce, the family mediator recommended that Jane actually pay Todd $300 a month. Does that seem right?

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

The answer is in the basis for alimony and child support, and in factors used to calculate them.


Alimony is a legal obligation for one spouse to pay another spouse financial support after a divorce. But how is it determined? Since the 1970s, almost every state has a no-fault divorce law meaning if one party doesn't want to be married, they can file for a divorce. Previously, there had to be grounds for divorce such as infidelity, abuse, or irreconcilable differences.

Modern Alimony Laws

Historically, alimony was based on the fault for the divorce. If a woman divorced a man on the grounds of abuse or infidelity, she could use those same grounds for alimony. Alimony was also used to provide support for the woman as her professional opportunities were limited.

Today, with the advent of the no-fault divorces, and expanding options for women. Most states laws provide alimony based on marital roles and earning capacity of each party regardless of fault or gender.

Courts will look at the following factors before awarding alimony:

  • The earnings of both spouses,
  • Their standard of living during the marriage,
  • Whether one spouse supported the other during their 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 lessor earning spouse.

In most states, misconduct by one party still affects alimony in two ways. First, if the payer spouse, meaning the spouse the court requires to make payments, engaged in the misconduct, the court can add to the payment either for a limited time or the full duration of the alimony. Second, if the payee spouse, the spouse getting the alimony payment, engaged in misconduct, the amount could be lessened or he or she could get nopendente lite alimony, which is support during the time of separation, and the payments wouldn't start until the divorce was final.

Child Support

Unlike alimony, child support is based only on the existence of a child and the living arrangements of the legal parents, which means the parent the court recognizes as owing support for the child. In most states, the legal non-custodial, (without primary custody) parent will owe the custodial (primary caregiver and physical day-to-day custody) support payments for the child. If the legal parents are living together with the child, then, no support payments are required.

Historically, child support was tied to child abandonment law, and the laws varied in each state. In the 1950s and 1960s, the federal government expanded welfare and social security payments, and many states began adding laws and setting up collection offices to recoup support payments paid on behalf of unsupported children.

Modern Child Support

Today, every state has adopted the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (URESA) as well as other support laws. The net result is that if a legal parent fails to support their child, there is no jurisdiction where he or she can run to avoid support enforcement.

Child support is based on the custody status and relative income of the parents.
Family Split

The calculation for child support differs from state to state, but is becoming more uniform as jurisdictions collaborate more on methods. The calculations consider the following factors:

  • The physical custody arrangements, meaning how much time is spent where each party is the caregiver.
  • Income of the parents.
  • Educational and medical needs of the child.
  • Any special needs necessary for the health and well-being of the child.
  • Age of the child. (In most states, no support after 18, or 19 if child is still in high school).

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