You may have read about celebrities who’ve gotten divorced and had to make millions of dollars in alimony payments to their former spouses. You might have wondered why in the world a court would make these celebrities pay so much, or how the same alimony laws might affect you if you’re involved in a divorce. You may also be wondering whether allegations of adultery may have played a role in these awards.
This article provides on overview of alimony and whether adultery impacts alimony awards in the District of Columbia. If you have questions after reading this article, you should contact a local family law attorney for help.
The goal of alimony (known as “maintenance” or “spousal support” in other states) is to prevent one spouse from walking away with the bulk of the marital funds and enjoying a comfortable life while leaving the other spouse penniless and impoverished because of a lack of means, education, or earning history. Alimony is simply the money that one spouse ("the obligor") pays to the other ("the obligee") to ensure that both can enjoy a comparable lifestyle with relatively equal access to money.
People commonly think of alimony as something that’s awarded when a divorce is finalized, but in the District of Columbia, the family court can order either spouse to pay alimony at any time after the petition for relief (the divorce paperwork) is filed. Alimony that has to be paid during the divorce proceeding and before the divorce is filed is called “alimony pendent lite,” and it can include health insurance coverage or cash medical support to make sure both spouses have access to medical care while the divorce is pending.
When the judge makes a final decision about alimony to be paid after the divorce, it can be structured in many ways. The obligor might have to pay alimony permanently, or just for a shorter time (“term-limited alimony”). The alimony award can even be backdated to the date that the requesting spouse first asked for alimony. No matter what, the judge’s job is to make sure that the alimony award is structured appropriately to the facts of the case, which means that the court must consider your individual circumstances.
Get more detailed information how the amount of alimony is determined, see Understanding and Calculating Alimony in D.C.
To obtain an “absolute divorce” in D.C., you’ll need to prove either that you and your spouse chose to separate and live apart for at least six months, or that you lived separately for at least a year even if it wasn’t necessarily a voluntary decision. In other words, if you agree to separate, the separation period of six months is the only “ground” (legal justification) you need for a divorce. If you don’t necessarily agree to separate or you’re abandoned, and you live apart for a year, then that’s another ground for divorce.
There are no other grounds for divorce in Washington, DC. The courts don’t consider evidence of marital misconduct, which is the wrongdoing of a “guilty spouse” that’s inflicted on an “innocent spouse.” Adultery, which is a form of marital misconduct that occurs when a legally married spouse has a sexual relationship with someone other than the person’s lawful spouse, is not a ground for divorce.
That isn’t true everywhere, though. Other states in America recognize “fault-based” divorce, and grant divorces because of marital misconduct. Still other states have a “no-fault” approach and only require that one spouse persuade the court that the marriage is broken and can’t be fixed.
The following are all factors that the court must consider when deciding whether alimony should be awarded, and the duration and amount of the award:
You may have noticed that one of the factors a judge can consider is “the circumstances which contributed to the estrangement of the parties.” This means that a judge can consider the reasons why the marriage ended, including marital misconduct like adultery. When the court decides whether alimony should be awarded, or for how long and in what amount, it is allowed to consider adultery if adultery was a cause of the divorce.
For example, if an adulterous spouse drained a joint marital bank account by spending money on expensive gifts and lavish vacations for a lover, the judge could consider this. The adulterous spouse’s marital misconduct had a clear and detrimental impact on the spouses’ joint financial resources, so the court might decide to give the innocent spouse more alimony over a longer period.
There’s one caveat. The decision always has to be just and proper under the law, and the award has to be fair and equitable, which means the court order has to be reasonable and a judge can’t just try to punish an adulterous spouse for the sake of punishment. The adultery can be considered, but the other factors have to be considered too. Looking at all the circumstances will ensure that the adultery is placed in its proper context and that the judge’s decision is just.
If you have questions about alimony and adultery in the District of Columbia, please contact an experienced family law attorney for help.
For self-help purposes, you can look at the District of Columbia Courts' Family Court Self-Help Center. You can also browse the LawHelp.org/DC site for resources and assistance from a network of nonprofit legal service providers dedicated to helping low-income residents with legal problems. Finally, you can read through the District of Columbia Official Code if you’re interested in finding out more about family laws.