When you and your spouse decide to divorce, going your separate ways may be difficult, especially financially. In Iowa, spouses having trouble adjusting to a new, post-divorce lifestyle may qualify for spousal support (alimony), which helps close the gap on income discrepancies.
The concept of spousal support has been around for decades and was common in divorces where one spouse was the primary earner, and the other spouse took care of the family and home. The court understood that after a separation, the stay-at-home spouse could not immediately cover expenses or support the marital lifestyle without help from the higher-earning spouse. While it’s common now for both spouses to work outside the home, spousal support is still available to those who need financial help during and after the divorce.
Iowa law recognizes three types of spousal support: traditional, rehabilitative, and reimbursement. Traditional support payments are beneficial to spouses who aren’t able to become financially independent due to advanced age, illness, or other circumstances. Typically, judges reserve traditional support for marriages of longer duration where one spouse stayed home to care for children and the family. Usually long-term or permanent, traditional support remains active until either spouse’s circumstances change significantly, and the court changes or terminates the order. If a paying spouse dies or the supported spouse remarries, the court will generally end support.
Rehabilitative support is a temporary option for spouses who can become self-supporting, but need financial help to get there. The court presumes that both spouses will work after the divorce, but also understands that stay-at-home spouses often need support while obtaining the necessary education or job training to find proper employment. Rehabilitative support isn’t a long-term solution, and the court usually requires supported spouses to submit a training and employment plan to demonstrate how they intend to become self-supporting.
Reimbursement support is less common in Iowa but intended to pay back a spouse who financially supported the other’s career development during the marriage. For example, if one spouse worked full-time during the marriage while the other went to medical school, the court may order reimbursement support to the spouse who contributed to the degree. Without reimbursement support, the only spouse benefiting from the contributions of the working spouse is the spouse with the degree or education. Reimbursement support ends when the paying spouse satisfies (pays ) the order to the judge’s specifications.
In Iowa, judges may award spousal support for a limited or indefinite length of time, but before the court orders any spousal support, the judge must determine that the requesting spouse has a financial need and the other spouse can pay. Additionally, the court will evaluate the following factors when deciding the type, amount, and duration of the award:
Spousal support awards are gender-neutral, meaning either spouse can request it in the divorce. However, the judge has broad discretion as to whether or not spousal support is appropriate in your case. If you’re concerned with what the judge may award, you can negotiate with your spouse and create an agreement that works for both of you.
The most common payment method of spousal support is a periodic payment made on a bi-weekly, monthly, or semi-annual basis. Unless you and your spouse agree otherwise, the court will likely order the paying spouse to submit payments to the clerk of the district court or the collection services center and will include an income withholding order with the support order.
Income withholding orders direct the paying spouse’s employer to deduct the amount of support from the employee’s paycheck and route it to the appropriate agency. (Iowa Code § 598.55 (2018).) Income withholding orders are the best method to ensure that the recipient receives payment on time and for the correct amount.
If the paying spouse fails to pay support exactly as required by the court order, the supported spouse can ask the court for help enforcing the order. The court can charge the paying spouse with contempt of court, which carries with it severe penalties. For example, if you ignore the support order and the court finds that there is no justification, the judge may order you to pay fines, court costs, attorney fees, or even order time in jail. (Iowa Code § 598-23 (2018).)
Unless the spouses agreed in writing that they can never change the support amount in the future, the court can hold a review hearing if either spouse asks later.
Before the court considers a modification, the requesting spouse must prove that there is a substantial change of circumstances that makes the current order unfair or unjust. Some examples of change of circumstances in Iowa include:
If you finalized your divorce before January 1, 2019, the paying spouse can deduct support payments, and the recipient must report the money as income for tax purposes. However, new tax laws eliminate the tax deduction and reporting requirements for all divorces finalized on or after January 1, 2019.
The recent changes to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act significantly impact support orders, so it’s important for couples to discuss their case with an experienced family law attorney and or CPA before negotiating spousal support.