The Goal of Alimony
Courts may order one spouse to pay alimony (also referred to as "spousal support" or “maintenance” in Illinois) when, simply put, the other spouse needs financial help. Traditionally, women were more likely to need alimony after a divorce because, for various reasons, their husbands were the primary breadwinners in the family. Many wives sacrificed their own educational and career opportunities to allow their husbands to attend college or professional school. Some wives also stayed home to care for their children, while their husbands worked out side of the home and continued to gain work experience. When these marriages ended, wives found themselves at a distinct financial disadvantage.
These days, even though American women earn less, on average, than men, most wives are significant—or sole—contributors to family income and may not need as much alimony as they did in the past. It’s become common for divorcing husbands to ask the court to order their former wives to pay them maintenance.
For more information on alimony in Illinois, see Illinois Alimony FAQs.
How Judges Decide on Alimony
Unlike child support, alimony isn’t calculated using a formula provided by the state. If the spouses can’t agree on an amount and payment scheme, the judge makes a decision, starting with a long list of factors set out in Illinois law, including:
- the income and property of each spouse, including assets awarded to the spouse in the divorce
- each spouse’s needs
- each spouse’s current and future earning capacity
- any reduction to the earning capacity of a spouse who put off education or career because of the marriage or to care for children of the marriage
- how long it will take for the spouse seeking alimony to obtain education, training, and employment
- whether or not the spouse requesting alimony can become self-supporting
- whether or not it’s appropriate for the spouse requesting alimony to seek work because he or she is the custodian of a child
- the couple’s standard of living during the marriage
- how long the couple has been married
- each spouse’s age and physical and emotional condition
- any tax consequences resulting from the property division in the divorce
- whether the spouse requesting alimony worked to support the other spouse’s education, career, or license, and
- any valid agreement between the spouses.
The court can also consider any factor that it believes is “just and equitable”—in other words, what the judge thinks is fair under the circumstances.
One factor Illinois courts do not consider is “marital misconduct.” When it comes to support, it doesn’t matter who was at fault in the divorce, or whether or not someone was dishonest or even abusive.
For the complete list of factors courts consider when setting alimony, see 750 ILCS 5/504.
How Alimony is Paid
Typically, alimony is paid in monthly installments. The court may order that these regular payments be made for a certain length of time, or indefinitely.
The court may instead order that the paying spouse pay the supported spouse a lump-sum support amount —though that amount might be paid in installments.
The court can also order that alimony (and child support) payments be made to the clerk of court, who then passes the money on to the supported spouse. Or, the court can order that payments be made directly to the supported spouse.
Modification and Termination
Either spouse can request a modification (change) in the amount and duration of alimony if there is a substantial change in circumstances. For example, if the supported spouse lands a high-paying job several years after the divorce, or the paying spouse gets laid off, the paying spouse could go to court and ask that the obligation to pay support be reduced, or even terminated. If the paying spouse can show that alimony is no longer necessary, the court might well agree and end the obligation.
Alimony also terminates if the supported spouse remarries or lives with someone in an intimate relationship. And, in Illinois, the obligation to pay alimony ends automatically if either spouse dies.
Life Insurance to Guarantee Payments
What if the supported spouse depends on regular alimony payments, but the paying spouse dies, ending the obligation to pay support? The unexpected loss of support could yield a huge financial blow. Obtaining or changing an existing life insurance policy on the paying spouse’s life is a good way to guard against this possibility; if something happens to the paying spouse, the supported spouse may receive a portion of the life insurance benefits in place of the alimony payments.
If there’s already a life insurance policy in place, the divorcing couple, or the court, can decide how much of the proceeds the supported spouse will get in the event of the paying spouse’s death, and who will pay future premiums. The court may also allow the supported spouse to buy a certain amount of life insurance on the other’s life.
If you receive support from your spouse, and plan to secure it with a life insurance policy on your spouse’s life, make sure you ask to review the policy itself, so you can make sure it exists and that you are a named beneficiary.
Similarly, a disability insurance policy may guarantee some continued income for support in the event the paying spouse is injured and unable to work in the future.
Contacting an Attorney for Help
Even if you and your spouse agree on all issues in your divorce, it might be a good idea to consult with an experienced family law attorney who can answer any complex legal questions that come up in your case. An attorney can also draft or review your divorce settlement agreement and make sure your rights are fully protected.
If it looks like you're headed towards a court battle with your spouse, you’ll definitely want to contact an experienced family law attorney that can represent you in court.