Understanding and Calculating Alimony in D.C.

Learn more about the types of alimony available in Washington D.C. and how courts decide the final award.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

When couples divorce, it's important for spouses to try and work together to resolve significant issues. Common divorce-related problems include negotiating child custody and child support, dividing marital property and debts, and deciding whether one spouse will pay spousal support.

In the District of Columbia, the courts refer to spousal support as "alimony," which is money that one spouse pays to the other during the divorce and sometimes, after the divorce for a period of time.

The concept of alimony developed at a time when "traditional" marriages consisted of one spouse working full-time, while the other stayed at home to raise the couple's children. When the couple divorced, without financial support from the higher-earning spouse, the non-working spouse often lacked the necessary means to remain financially stable. While it's common today for both spouses to work outside the home, alimony continues to be available for spouses who can demonstrate a need for financial help.

What Types of Alimony are Available in the District of Columbia?

Couples can agree on alimony terms that work best for them. However, in cases where spouses can't agree, the court will decide between temporary, short-term (rehabilitative), and/or permanent alimony.

Temporary alimony—sometimes called "pendente lite"—is available in cases where one spouse needs financial assistance during the divorce process. Temporary orders either end when the divorce is complete, or they become a part of the judge's final support orders after finalizing the divorce.

Short-term or rehabilitative alimony is a payment from one spouse to the other for a specific period after the divorce. Rehabilitative alimony is appropriate in cases where the lower-earning spouse needs time to acquire job skills, education, or additional training to enter into the workforce and become self-supporting. The judge will evaluate specific factors when deciding the amount and duration of rehabilitative alimony, but typically it ends when the supported spouse becomes financially independent or remarries.

Permanent alimony is available in cases where the low-earning or unemployed spouse can't obtain training or education to become self-supporting. Permanent alimony is common in cases where the supported spouse has a disability or is of advanced age and unable to find employment. Courts are aware that it may not always be possible for one spouse to support the other permanently, so the judge will typically include a provision that allows for a periodic review of the award in the future.

Qualifying for Alimony

Alimony is gender-neutral, meaning either spouse can request and receive it. However, to qualify for alimony in the District of Columbia, the requesting spouse must demonstrate a need for support and that the other spouse can pay. If the court believes alimony is appropriate for your case, the judge will consider the following factors before deciding on the type, duration, and amount of the award:

  • the recipient spouse's ability to become self-supporting
  • the time necessary for the recipient spouse to obtain education or training to become self-supporting
  • the couple's standard of living during the marriage
  • the length of the marriage
  • the circumstances that caused the break-up of the marriage (for example, adultery)
  • each spouse's age, physical, and mental health
  • the paying spouse's ability to remain financially stable while supporting the recipient spouse, and
  • each spouse's financial needs and financial resources, including income, potential income, financial obligations, and retirement funds. (C. Code Ann. § 16-913 (2014).)

There is no formula controlling how the court determines an alimony award in D.C.. After evaluating the above factors, the judge will award alimony in whatever amount and duration are fair and reasonable to both spouses. Judges have broad discretion when creating a final spousal support award in each case.

Alimony Payments

In most cases, the court will require a paying spouse to make periodic payments (for example, monthly) to the supported spouse. Sometimes it's more efficient for the court to include an income withholding order with the final alimony order, which instructs the paying spouse's employer to automatically deduct the amount for alimony from the employee's paycheck.

If the paying spouse is faithful in making payments, an income withholding order may not be necessary. However, if the paying spouse fails to pay as required by the court order, the recipient can request help from getting payment from the court. Failure to pay alimony can result in contempt of court charges, which carry penalties such as fines, fees, loss of licenses, and even jail time.

Although rare, the court may instruct the paying spouse to pay alimony in one lump-sum, which eliminates the need for enforcement or review later. Many spouses don't have the financial means to pay a considerable cash sum to the spouse, but in rare cases, a spouse may be able to make one large alimony payment.

Couples can create a payment agreement, and if it's fair to both spouses, the court will approve it.

Modifying or Terminating an Alimony Order

Unless both spouses agree, in writing, not to change the alimony order after it's entered, either spouse could request a review by the court in the future. In order to change an alimony award in D.C., spouses must demonstrate that, since the last order, there has been a substantial and material change of circumstances that impacts the paying spouse's ability to pay or the recipient's need for support. (D.C. Code Ann. § 46-204 (2014).)

Alimony usually terminates when the paying spouse dies or the recipient remarries, but it's not automatic, and the paying spouse must file a motion requesting a review by the court before support will end. Spouses can also agree to modify or terminate support at any time.

New Tax Laws and Your Alimony Award

If the court finalized your divorce on or before December 31, 2018, alimony payments are tax-deductible to the paying spouse and reportable income to the recipient.

For divorces finalized after December 31, 2018, however, recent changes to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminates the tax deduction for the paying spouse and the reporting requirement for the recipient spouse.

While some couples may not see the importance of the tax changes, it's important to understand how the new reporting requirements may affect you in the long run. For example, before the changes, a paying spouse earning $50,000 per year and paying $10,000 per year will report a total of $40,000 income per year, thus paying taxes only on that amount. However, under the new tax changes, the same spouse must report an income of $50,000, which could result in paying more taxes at the end of the year. Couples may need to consider the tax effects of the new law before agreeing on an alimony award.

If you're unsure how to proceed under the new tax guidelines, it may be beneficial to speak with an experienced divorce attorney and or CPA before negotiating alimony with your spouse.