Differences Between Alimony & Spousal Support

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For most couples, divorce is personally and financially complex and stressful. Property settlement, prenuptial agreements, spousal support, child support and alimony are typically unfamiliar terms. Many individuals either never get divorced or experience divorce just once in their lives. Even if you divorce several times, each dissolution of marriage will vary based on the unique character of the marriage. Although divorce can be complex, the payments one spouse makes to another are easy to understand.

History of Alimony

Modern alimony traces its roots to old English courts, when married couples could legally separate if one spouse wronged the other. Although separated, a husband was still legally required to support his wife. The courts used the term "alimony" to describe the financial support a separated husband paid to his wife. The U.S. draws many principles of jurisprudence from the English court system. Therefore, U.S. courts adopted the term "alimony" in the context of divorce to characterize the support payments that the at-fault spouse, who had been cruel or unfaithful, paid to the "innocent" spouse. Traditionally, courts ordered husbands to pay alimony to wives, because men usually earned more than their wives and were usually considered responsible for the divorce because of infidelity, physical or emotional abuse.

Alimony and Spousal Support

The term "alimony" historically meant a support payment from a husband to a wife. The term seemed inappropriate when, in 1981, a court ordered a woman to pay monthly support to her husband. The neutral term "spousal support," on the other hand, seemed more appropriate to modern society, where most states' laws no longer recognize the concept of fault in divorce, and where a judge may order either a husband or a wife to pay support, depending on which spouse was the high earner in the relationship.

Support Factors

The factors a judge considers when deciding whether to award alimony or spousal support vary from state to state. Generally speaking, the factors include the length of the marriage and the degree to which one spouse gave up educational and career opportunities to raise a family or enhance the other spouse's career. In some cases, a judge awards spousal support for a limited period of time to enable the disadvantaged spouse to finish getting a degree or train for a specific career. In other cases, a judge awards a one-time payment known as "lump sum" spousal support.

Taxability

If you meet certain conditions, spousal support is deductible from the payor's income and added to the recipient's income on tax returns. Requirements for this tax treatment include explicitly labeling the payments as spousal support in the divorce decree and requiring the spouses to live apart while receiving support and terminating the payments when the recipient spouse dies.

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