It’s no secret that going through a divorce can be emotional, but when all is said and done, it can also leave you financially drained. If you need some financial help during or after the divorce and your spouse can afford it, the court may award you alimony. Alimony, also called “spousal support” or “spousal maintenance” in Alabama, is money that one spouse pays to the other for financial support. The purpose of alimony is to ensure that both spouses are financially able to pay ordinary living expenses during and after the divorce. If one spouse earns a higher wage, the court may order that spouse to assist the lower-earning spouse for a period of time.
On April 13, 2017, the Governor of Alabama signed HB 257 into law, which provides new rules regarding alimony. In the past, the court had the discretion to award parties temporary, periodic, or permanent support in divorce cases. Under the new law, the court can still award permanent—or, forever—support, but only if the case meets strict guidelines. (Alabama HB 257.)
Interim support, or “alimony pendente lite,” is a temporary award that provides financial assistance during the pendency of the divorce process. To qualify for temporary support from a spouse, the petitioning party must prove to the court that there is a need for support, that the other party can provide it, and that the marriage is valid.
Since the request for interim alimony takes time, the court may make the temporary award retroactive to the date of the divorce filing. Temporary support ends when the court issues a final order.
Periodic alimony is when one spouse provides a set amount of support to the other on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis for a specific amount of time. The most common type of periodic alimony is “rehabilitative support,” which is a payment to the lesser earning spouse only until that spouse can obtain proper job training, education, or skills to enter the workforce and become self-supporting. Rehabilitative support is common in cases where one party left the workforce to raise a family.
One of the most significant changes to support laws in Alabama affects rehabilitative alimony, which now is limited to a maximum of 5 years for the recipient. The only exception to the new rule is if the court finds that rehabilitation is not possible or there are other reasons for a deviation from the 5-year standard. If the court wishes to deviate, then a judge may award support up to the same length of the divorcing couple’s marriage.
Permanent alimony was once common, but more and more courts are phasing it out, including Alabama. Although rare, permanent alimony is still an option for some couples, particularly in situations where one spouse has a permanent disability or is too old to begin a career and become self-supporting.
Although the new law in Alabama limits alimony to 5 years, one exception is when a couple has been married for more than 20 years. In those cases, if a party can convince the court of a need for the support, the court can award permanent alimony.
To qualify for alimony, a court must find that the requesting spouse is financially dependent on the other and that the other spouse can pay. In evaluating a spouse's need, a court will first consider the extent to which separate assets, or any marital assets the spouse receives in an equitable property division, may provide a sufficient means of support without an alimony award. (This means that alimony is always determined after the property division is complete.)
When evaluating a paying spouse’s ability to provide support, the court will not consider any separate property that the spouse owned before the marriage, unless the spouse used it as a source of income during the marriage.
In the past, the court could consider retirement accounts as a resource for alimony, but only if the couple was married for at least 10 years. In April 2017, the Governor signed into law HB 208, which eliminates the requirement that the parties be married for 10 years for the court to consider retirement assets marital property. This change also affects the way courts view retirement accounts for alimony purposes. (Alabama HB 207.)
To determine qualification for support, the court will also evaluate the following:
There is no specific formula for the court to determine the amount and duration of alimony in Alabama. Judges have sole discretion, based on the facts and circumstances from each case, to create an appropriate award.
Most alimony payments are periodic, and either bi-weekly or monthly. When the court issues a support order, it almost always attaches an income withholding order with it. An income withholding order identifies the purpose of the order, each spouse’s identifying information, the paying spouse’s employment information, the amount and frequency of payments, and instructions to the paying spouse’s employer. Once the employer receives the document, payroll must begin the process to withhold the support amount from each paycheck.
In some cases, the paying spouse can provide a lump-sum payment to the supported spouse in the amount of total alimony owed. For example, if one spouse owns more personal or real property than the other, instead of making bi-weekly or monthly payments for 5 years, the paying spouse can turn over title to valuable property in the amount owed, which ends the obligation for ongoing support.
Failure to Pay
If a person fails to pay court-ordered support, the recipient spouse may file a contempt petition with the court requesting that the court enforce the order. The penalties for failure to comply with a court order include fines, interest, increase in the duration of support, garnishment of tax returns and bank accounts, or more severe consequences like a lien on property or time in jail.
The court can modify or terminate existing support orders if the filing party can demonstrate that, since the last order, there has been a material change in circumstances of one or both parties. Some of the factors a court will consider in modifying an order include:
The law permits the court to terminate existing orders for support if any of the following circumstances exist:
Before December 31, 2018, periodic alimony payments were taxable as income to the recipient and tax-deductible to the payer of support. However, in December 2017, the President signed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act into law, which made sweeping changes to the relationship between alimony and taxes. As of January 1, 2019, alimony payments are no longer tax-deductible to the payer and are no longer counted as income for tax purposes for the recipient spouse.