Alimony is money one spouse pays to the other for support, either during a divorce process or for some period of time after a divorce, or both. The concept of alimony, also called spousal support, developed when traditional marriages were the norm; a wife took care of the household and a husband supported the family financially. Because employment options for women were limited, if a marriage ended, the husband remained responsible for the wife’s support.
Although both spouses now work outside the home in many marriages, alimony laws remain in place to ensure economic fairness in divorce. When a married couple has worked to build a lifestyle together, courts generally require the higher earner—whether that is the husband or the wife—to assist the lower earner with necessary expenses while the spouses transition to living apart, and also for at least some period following a divorce.
A judge in Georgia may award temporary alimony during divorce proceedings—sometimes called "pendente lite" alimony, meaning while the action is pending. The judge may also order either temporary or permanent alimony after the divorce is final. One spouse generally pays the other a specified amount periodically—monthly or biweekly, for example— for a set period of time. Occasionally, a court will order a single lump-sum payment instead of periodic payments.
Permanent alimony is becoming increasingly rare. (Even when it is ordered, it's rarely truly permanent--that's just a name for alimony that's ordered after a divorce is final.) Particularly in shorter marriages, Georgia courts tend to look at alimony as rehabilitative, meaning that it's only paid for a specific, limited period of time in for the purpose of helping the recipient spouse find a job or obtain training or education to improve employment prospects.
Permanent alimony is generally reserved for spouses with very poor employment prospects due to ill health or advanced age. A couple can always agree between themselves to provide one spouse with long-term or permanent alimony.
Before awarding alimony, a court must find that one spouse has financial need and that the other has the ability to pay. Georgia courts will also consider whether one spouse's behavior led to the breakdown of the marriage; a spouse who otherwise might have received alimony but committed adultery or abandoned the other spouse may be barred from receiving payments. Some of the factors impacting need and ability to pay include:
There is no formula for calculating alimony in Georgia; different factors may have more or less weight depending on the overall circumstances of a case. A judge has great discretion in deciding what amount to award, or whether to award any amount at all.
Unless the couple has an agreement not to seek changes in court, a court can modify periodic alimony payments if either spouse can show that there's been a significant change in the circumstances that gave rise to the order--for example, the paying spouse lost a job or the recipient spouse got one. If there's no agreement otherwise, alimony will automatically terminate if the recipient remarries. A court will also sometimes modify or terminate alimony if the recipient is cohabiting with a new partner in a marriage-like relationship.
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. The IRS generally treats lump sum alimony payments as property distributions, regardless of whether the couple or the court calls the payments alimony. This type of payment is not taxable or deductible for either spouse.
Georgia Code: O.C.G.A. 19-6-1; 19-6-5 (2010)