Alimony—sometimes also called maintenance—is a court-ordered payment from one spouse to the other during and after the divorce process. Alimony is not a new concept, and the purpose of it is to ensure that no spouse suffers financial hardship while adjusting to a post-divorce lifestyle.
Maintenance was prevalent in divorces where one spouse worked full-time, and the other worked in the home, caring for the couple’s children and running the household. Divorce often left the unemployed spouse scrambling to apply for public assistance like food stamps and welfare, while the other, higher-earning spouse, walked away without a worry.
Although today it's common for both spouses to work outside the home, adjusting from two incomes to one is sometimes impossible for a low-earning or financially-dependent spouse.
Judges in Missouri may order temporary, periodic, or permanent alimony, or some combination of these types of alimony. The court reserves temporary alimony for cases where one spouse needs financial assistance while the divorce is pending in court. Temporary alimony ends when the judge finalizes the divorce and is not a guarantee of periodic or permanent support.
Periodic alimony (sometimes also called rehabilitative) is short-term support that one spouse pays the supported spouse (usually monthly) while the spouse acquires the job skills or education necessary to find employment. The court expects both spouses to be financially independent after the divorce. However, judges also understand that a spouse who has been absent from the job market for several years may need time to gain the necessary skills to get a proper job. Sometimes judges will order periodic support to help a dependent spouse transition to a post-divorce lifestyle, or as a way to meet financial obligations while waiting for the marital home to sell. (Miss. Code Ann. § 452.335 (3) (2018).)
Permanent support is rare, and judges typically reserve it for long-term marriages where one spouse can’t become financially independent. Permanent support may be appropriate if you can’t become self-supporting due to a disability, advanced age, or absence from the job market.
Alimony awards are gender-neutral, meaning either spouse, regardless of sex, can request it from the court. However, alimony is not a right, and the court will only award it if the requesting spouse:
If the court finds it appropriate to award alimony, it looks at the following factors to determine the duration and amount of the alimony award:
The goal of any alimony award is to ensure that neither spouse is impoverished after the divorce. Judges don’t use a formula to determine alimony and have broad discretion as to what's fair in each case.
If either spouse committed marital misconduct, like adultery, the court might consider it when finalizing an award. However, it’s important to understand that the court won’t usually deny alimony to a needy spouse simply because that spouse is guilty of having an affair, and it won’t typically award alimony to a financially independent spouse just to “punish” the unfaithful spouse. It’s also important to remember that the conduct of the spouses during the marriage is only two of ten factors during an alimony evaluation. The court must balance all factors before creating a support award.
For example, if a cheating spouse has wasted marital funds on gifts or vacations for a lover, the court may order reimbursement to the innocent spouse.
Most judges order periodic payments (usually, monthly) for alimony through an income withholding order attached to the alimony award. Income withholding orders direct the payer’s employer to automatically withhold the amount of maintenance from the employee’s paycheck and send it directly to the recipient. (Miss. Code Ann. § 452.345 (2018).)
Sometimes a lump-sum payment is appropriate, but it’s rare. Most paying spouses don’t have enough cash or property after the divorce to satisfy the entire alimony award, but if it's possible, the court may allow it. Lump-sum payments eliminate the need for on-going court monitoring and end the paying spouse’s obligation immediately after full payment.
If you’re having trouble getting your ex to make the court-ordered payments, you can ask the court for assistance by filing a motion to enforce the judgment. The court will schedule a hearing and require your ex-spouse to attend. If your ex still hasn't paid support at the time of the hearing, the court can make a finding of contempt, meaning your spouse has violated a court order. Contempt of court is a serious charge and may result in the loss of a driver’s license, a lien on wages or bank accounts, tax refund intercepts, or a jail sentence. (Miss. Code Ann. § 452.365 (2018).)
When creating an alimony order, the court must include a provision clarifying if the award is modifiable or nonmodifiable. If the couple wants to make alimony nonmodifiable, both spouses must agree, in writing, before the judge signs the order.
If there is no agreement, and the court doesn’t prohibit modification, either spouse can request a review of the support order if there is a substantial change of circumstances—a change so substantial that continuing the order would make the terms unreasonable. (Miss. Code Ann. § 452.335 (3) (2018).) For example, if a supported spouse finds employment and earns enough to be financially independent, the court may reduce or terminate alimony payments.
If the supported spouse remarries, alimony terminates automatically from the date of the marriage. (Miss. Code Ann. § 452.075 (2018).)
When it comes to alimony, if you finalized your divorce on or before December 31, 2018, payments are tax-deductible to the paying spouse and reportable income to the recipient. However, if you didn’t finalize your divorce until January 1, 2019, or later, new changes to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminate the tax-deduction and reporting requirements.
Couples who are negotiating their alimony award (and judges deciding for them) must consider how the tax changes impact annual income and alimony awards. It’s important to speak with an experienced tax expert and a divorce attorney before finalizing your divorce.