Alimony is money that one spouse pays to the other for support either during the divorce process or for some period of time after divorce, or both. The concept of alimony developed at a time when "traditional" marriages were the norm; a wife took care of the household, and a husband supported the family financially. Since few employment options existed for women, if a marriage ended, the husband remained responsible for the wife’s support.
Although the majority of women now work outside the home, alimony laws remain in place to ensure economic fairness in divorce. When both spouses have built a lifestyle together, courts generally require the higher earner—whether that is the husband or the wife—to assist the lower earner with reasonable needs for some period of time.
A judge in the District of Columbia may award temporary alimony during divorce proceedings—sometimes referred to as "pendente lite" support, meaning that it's ordered while the action is pending—as well as either temporary or permanent alimony after the divorce is final. An award will usually direct one spouse to pay the other a specified amount monthly until either a certain date arrives or a certain event happens, like the recipient spouse marrying someone else or graduating from an educational program.
Permanent alimony was once common but is becoming increasingly rare. Courts now tend to look at alimony as rehabilitative—a form of temporary assistance to allow a spouse time to find a job or obtain training and education to improve employment prospects. Courts generally award permanent alimony only after long marriages, and only when one spouse has limited future opportunities for employment due to age or health issues. A couple can also agree between themselves to provide one spouse with short-term, long-term or permanent alimony.
To award either temporary or permanent alimony a court in the District of Columbia must find that one spouse has financial need and the other has the ability to pay. The judge will consider all relevant factors, including:
There is no formula controlling how a court will weigh the factors in any particular case. After considering all of the circumstances, the judge will award alimony in whatever amount and for whatever length of time appears fair. A judge has great discretion in deciding what amount to award, or whether to award any amount at all.
Unless the couple has a written agreement providing that they won’t seek any changes to alimony in court, a court can modify periodic payments on a showing of material change in circumstances. Courts are somewhat more likely to modify awards downward than upward. Alimony payments end when the term of an award expires, when the recipient remarries, or when either spouse dies.
Periodic alimony payments are usually taxable to the recipient and tax-deductible by the payer. Couples can sometimes take advantage of this situation by structuring alimony payments to create the best possible tax scenario for both spouses.