If you’re considering a divorce in Michigan, you probably have questions about alimony, which is also called “spousal support” or “maintenance.” This article provides a general overview of the types of alimony in Michigan and how courts make alimony-related decisions. If you have specific questions about your case, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for advice.
Overview of Alimony
In Michigan, divorcing spouses can request alimony, which is money paid from one spouse to the other for financial support. Alimony may be paid both during a divorce and after the divorce is complete. The purpose of alimony is to balance the incomes and needs of the divorcing couple, specifically to help the spouse that is financially dependent on the other.
Types of Alimony in Michigan – Temporary Versus Permanent
Alimony that’s paid during the divorce is referred to as “temporary alimony,” and can even include money that the spouse receiving alimony (the “supported spouse”) needs for attorney’s fees related to the divorce.
Alimony paid after a divorce is referred to as “permanent alimony.” Permanent alimony can be paid for a specific number of years, or it can be paid in installments for as long as both parties are alive. For example, permanent alimony may be paid in monthly installments for a period of five years, or it can go on indefinitely, until either spouse dies or the supported spouse remarries.
Methods of paying permanent alimony
May divorcing spouses have questions about how permanent alimony is paid – whether all at once or in smaller installments. In Michigan, permanent alimony can be paid as “periodic alimony” or “alimony in gross.”
“Periodic alimony” is paid in installments; typically every month. Periodic alimony is usually subject to some contingency, which means it will end if either spouse passes away, or the spouse receiving alimony gets remarried. Periodic alimony payments are also called “maintenance payments,” because the payments are intended to allow supported spouses to maintain enough income to cover their expenses and financial needs.
“Alimony in gross” is when one spouse provides a definite, total amount of money to the supported spouse in order to completely pay off the alimony obligation; if there is a predetermined amount of money to be paid, it is considered alimony in gross. Alimony in gross can be paid in one lump sum, or it can be paid in installments – but if the latter option is chosen, typically it will be paid in a few installments, not on a monthly basis for a period of years. For example, if a couple agrees that the supported spouse is entitled to a total of $200,000 in alimony and that it may be paid off in four smaller payments, once the final payment of $50,000 is made, the paying spouse’s alimony obligation ends.
How Alimony is Determined in Michigan
The amount and duration of alimony can be determined by an agreement between the spouses. If the divorcing couple can’t reach an agreement, then a judge may award alimony after both spouses have had an opportunity to present their financial circumstances to the court.
Michigan courts don’t use a specific formula to determine alimony. Instead, courts in Michigan can consider several factors when deciding whether to award alimony, how much to award, and how long alimony should last. These factors include:
- the length of the marriage
- each spouse’s ability to pay alimony
- each spouse’s conduct during the marriage, including any misconduct, such as adultery
- the spouses’ ages, health and ability to work (whether or not they are currently working)
- the spouses’ financial needs
- the “marital standard of living” (the standard of living the couple established and enjoyed during the marriage)
- the amount of any property awarded to the spouses in the divorce
- whether either spouse is responsible for supporting other people (besides the other spouse), and
- any other circumstance the court believes is relevant to the decision.
Courts can also consider retirement or pension benefits, property, trusts, real estate, bank accounts, insurance policy and all other forms of income or assets when figuring out if a spouse has enough resources to pay, or whether the spouse requesting support actually needs alimony.
As stated above, in Michigan, courts can consider either spouse’s fault or misconduct when making decisions about alimony. So, for example, a judge may decline to award alimony to an otherwise financially dependent spouse based on misconduct, such as his or her infidelity during the marriage.
A couple of examples may help illustrate how the above factors can play a role in an alimony decision. Let’s say a couple in their thirties has decided to divorce; they have been married for five years, they both work, and they earn equal income. Under these circumstances, it’s unlikely a court would order either spouse to pay any alimony.
If, on the other hand, a case involves a couple that’s been married for 30 years, and one spouse gave up job opportunities to work in the home during the marriage - caring for the couple’s household or children - and is financially dependent on the other spouse, a court will probably award alimony to the stay-at-home spouse.
Both paying and supported spouses often wonder whether they can modify (change) an alimony award after their divorce. Maybe the paying spouse lost a job and can’t afford alimony payments anymore. Or, maybe the alimony payments haven’t sufficiently covered the supported spouse’s living expenses while the paying spouse started receiving bonuses just after the divorce. In both circumstances, a modification of alimony may be appropriate.
Either spouse can ask a court to modify periodic alimony by filing a petition or motion (legal paperwork) to modify alimony. Upon request, the court can change periodic alimony if there are new facts that have arisen since the original alimony order was issued, or if the parties have experienced a change in circumstances since the time of the divorce. Several factors can qualify as grounds to modify alimony, including:
- either spouse’s fraud during the divorce (for example, if the paying spouse asked an employer to hold back yearly bonuses until after the divorce in order to make income appear lower)
- a change in the income or other financial conditions of either spouse
- either spouse’s remarriage
- the health (whether a spouse is healthy enough to work or has medical problems) or death of either spouse, and
- any other circumstances that affect the ability to pay alimony or the needs of the supported spouse.
There is no waiting period to be eligible to ask for a modification. For example, if circumstances change one month after the divorce, either spouse can immediately ask the court to modify alimony.
If no alimony was awarded at the time of a divorce, parties can’t ask for alimony after the divorce is final, unless their divorce judgment specifically allows post-divorce requests for alimony.
Finally, alimony in gross – the all-at-once type of alimony payment described above – cannot be modified.
Alimony in gross terminates when the total amount of alimony has been paid in full.
Periodic alimony can be terminated by some contingency being met. When and how periodic alimony terminates is typically spelled out in the divorce “decree” (judgment of divorce).
Usually, periodic alimony ends automatically if either spouse dies. In some circumstances, however, the court can require that alimony be paid from the deceased party’s estate. Since periodic alimony is usually meant to provide for the needs of a financially dependent spouse, it also generally ends when that spouse remarries.
Similar to modification of alimony, a court can decide to terminate alimony based on a change in circumstances of either or both parties.
For a complete list of the factors Michigan courts consider when determining alimony, see Magee. v. Magee, 218 Mich.App. 158.
For the full text of the law governing modification, see Michigan Compiled Laws Annotated (M.C.L.A.) 552.28