When couples divorce, it’s common for one spouse to need ongoing financial help from the other. Spousal support is a monetary payment that one spouse makes to the other for a specific period of time. The courts sometimes award support during the divorce, sometimes after the divorce, and, if appropriate, for both. (Md. Code Ann. [Fam Law] § 11-101 (2018).)
The divorce process is lengthy, either due to the backup on the court docket or the complexities of the case. Either way, the court understands that some spouses can’t afford to live off one income without help.
Judges can award pendente lite support, which is a fancy way of referring to temporary support during the divorce process. Temporary relief is short-term and ends when the judge issues a new support order and/or finalizes the divorce. (Md. Code Ann. [Fam Law] § 11-102 (2018).)
It’s common for one spouse to step out of the job market during the marriage to raise young children and take on household responsibilities, while the other works outside of the home. Divorce requires both spouses to adjust to a new standard of living, most times, a lower standard. If a lower-earning spouse is out of work, untrained, or unemployable, the court may order the higher-earning spouse to help financially support the other until employment is possible.
Rehabilitative support is appropriate in cases where the lower-earning spouse can become self-supportive but needs time and support to acquire necessary job training or education to find employment.
The court can award permanent spousal support for an indefinite period in cases where the supported spouse can’t become financially independent. For example, when a spouse, due to age, illness, infirmity, or disability, can’t find employment to make substantial progress towards becoming self-supporting, the court may order the higher-earning spouse to support the other. Permanent support ends if either one of the spouses dies or the supported spouse remarries. (Md. Code Ann. [Fam Law] § 11-108 (2018).)
The hallmark of every support case is that one spouse needs financial help, and the other spouse can pay. Once the court finds a need and ability to pay, the judge will evaluate the following factors when creating a fair and equitable award:
There’s no formula for judges to use to calculate spousal support. Judges have broad discretion and will evaluate and weigh each factor equally to ensure a fair award. If the couple would like to keep control over the type, duration, and amount of spousal support, both can negotiate the terms during a settlement conference, and the judge will approve it if it’s fair to both spouses.
Unless the couple agrees otherwise, the judge will decide the frequency and type of payment for spousal support. Judges often require periodic payments, meaning bi-weekly, monthly, or semi-annual payments.
The court will attach an income withholding order to the support order, which directs the paying spouse’s employer to deduct support payments directly from the employee’s paycheck. If an employer fails to comply with the order, the court may fine it up to $250. (Md. Code Ann. [Fam Law] § 10-121 (2018).)
Sometimes periodic payments aren’t appropriate for support payments. For example, if the paying spouse is unemployed or self-employed and doesn’t receive a regular paycheck, the court may order a lump-sum payment.
If you’re the recipient of spousal support and you stopped receiving payment, you can ask the court to enforce the support order for you. The court will require the paying spouse to attend a hearing and explain why payments stopped. If the court isn’t satisfied with the explanation, the judge may charge the paying spouse with contempt, which may result in a punishment of fines, attorney fees, or a jail sentence.
The court understands that circumstances in life may change and make the support order unfair or unnecessary. If you’ve had financial changes in your life, or if you believe your spouse has, you can ask the court to review your support order.
Judges in Maryland may review an order “as circumstances and justice require,” meaning if you’ve had a significant change in income, job status, or life circumstance, the court can change the support order to reflect the changes. (Md. Code Ann. [Fam Law] § 11-107 (b) (2018).)
Until recently, paying spouses could deduct spousal support payments, and recipients of support reported the income for tax purposes. In 2018, the President made sweeping changes to the Tax Cuts, and Jobs Act, which eliminated the tax deduction and reporting requirements for spousal support in divorces finalizes on or after January 1, 2019.
Couples discussing alimony in their divorce should consult an experienced family law and tax attorney before negotiating or agreeing to any final terms for support.