If you’re considering filing for divorce, or if your spouse already filed, you're likely wondering how you can ease your financial worries. Michigan permits spouses to request spousal support (also called alimony) if the requesting spouse can demonstrate a financial need and the other party can afford to pay.
Spousal support is a payment from one ex-spouse to the other during or after a divorce. The purpose of spousal support is to ensure that each spouse can meet financial needs during and after the divorce process. The amount, frequency, and duration of support will depend on your individual case. As with most issues in divorce, if you and your spouse agree on an amount and term for spousal support, the court will honor it, if it’s not unfair to either party. (MCL 552.23 (1).)
Michigan offers four types of spousal support:
If you qualify for support, the court will determine what kind of support is best for your situation. Temporary support is only available during the pendency of the divorce. Periodic support is paid in equal payments over a specific period, permanent support lasts indefinitely, and lump-sum support is spousal support paid all at once
Temporary support is available for spouses who are unable to support themselves during the divorce process. Either party can request temporary support when filing for divorce, but the court will only award it if it’s appropriate.
Sometimes courts refer to temporary support as “status quo” payments. For example, if your spouse has always paid the mortgage, utility bills, and car payments, the court may order that your spouse continue making those payments throughout the divorce process.
The court sometimes also awards temporary support in addition to the status quo payments if there’s a need and a significant discrepancy in income. Temporary support and status quo orders typically end when the judge finalizes the divorce and creates a new support order (or integrates the interim award into the final judgment.)
Periodic support is the most common type of support in Michigan, and the judge can award it for a short period (considered rehabilitative support) or for a long-term. Periodic support is common in cases where one spouse can be self-supporting, but not immediately. For example, in cases where one spouse gave up a career to raise a family or support the other’s career, the court may award periodic spousal support for a term that allows the recipient time to develop job skills or finish a degree that will help that spouse become financially independent.
Permanent spousal support is becoming the exception in Michigan and is reserved for cases where the parties were married for an extended period, and the recipient spouse is unable to become financially independent due to age, health, or disability.
Lump-sum support, although rare, is appropriate in cases where one spouse can afford to pay the entire support award in one payment. It’s common for lump-sum payments to be personal or real property instead of money. The benefit of lump-sum support is that there’s no continuing obligation to make bi-weekly, monthly, or annual payments to an ex-spouse. The downside is that the paying spouse will need to provide a significant value of property or a lump-sum monetary amount up-front.
In Michigan, either spouse can ask for spousal support in a divorce. It’s important to understand that for the court to consider a request for support, you must address it in your initial divorce paperwork. For the filing spouse, you’ll have to tell the court you need financial support in your petition for divorce. For the respondent (or defendant), it’s essential for you to file an answer to the complaint for divorce and your spouse's request for alimony.
It’s a common misconception that you and your spouse must be married for at least 10 years before the court will award support. While it’s more likely for a judge to award support for a long-term marriage, for couples married for any period, the court will award alimony if a party qualifies.
Factors for the Court to Consider
Unlike child support calculations in Michigan, there is no set formula that judge must use to calculate the amount and duration of spousal support. Judges must consider various factors to determine whether to award alimony and if so, how much. In addition to considering the length of the marriage, judges also evaluate the following factors:
The amount of alimony dramatically depends on both spouse's incomes. The court will try to award an amount sufficient to allow the receiving spouse to maintain a home and a reasonable standard of living. It may also include an award of attorney fees already paid by the receiving spouse.
Although there’s no “formula” for judges to determine alimony in Michigan, some courts use the child support formula and additional information to create a starting point for spousal support awards. However, the court has broad discretion when creating a final order.
Michigan has a family court called Friend of the Court (FOC) that monitors child support and alimony payments. Typically, along with the final judgment of divorce, the court will issue income withholding orders to the employer of the paying spouse. An income withholding order contains identifying information for each spouse, employment information for the paying spouse, and the amount, frequency, and duration of the award.
Once the employer receives the income withholding order, payroll must comply and see that the payments are removed from the paying spouse’s paycheck as required, which will route the money directly to the recipient spouse.
Support orders are court orders, meaning you must follow the terms or risk penalties. If the paying spouse stops making payments, the recipient can file a motion for contempt with the FOC asking for assistance. While the FOC can’t determine whether a party is in contempt, it can weed out the cases where there’s no violation.
If the FOC finds that a party is violating the order, it can set a hearing for the paying spouse to appear in front of the judge to explain non-payment. Penalties for contempt in Michigan include restriction of driver’s or professional licenses, interruption of passport services, garnishment of wages and bank accounts, tax refund interceptions, and jail sentences.
In some cases (with no minor children or domestic violence), couples can opt-out of FOC services. In opt-out cases, the spouses are solely responsible for making arrangements for sending and receiving payments. If you opt-out, you may find it more complicated (but not impossible) to enforce the judgment later.
The obligation to pay alimony ends when either party dies, or when the person receiving alimony remarries unless you’ve agreed to other terms in your divorce agreement. (MCL 552.13 (2).)
Courts understand that circumstances change, so if you can prove a significant change of circumstances since the last order, you may ask the court to modify your current order. A change in circumstances to warrant modification may include:
It’s no surprise that paying spousal support can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow. In divorces finalized before December 31, 2018, tax law allowed the paying spouse to deduct alimony payments for purposes of the annual tax return. Tax deductions are essential when it comes to the bottom line, so the alimony deduction was beneficial for financial purposes. Also, before December 31, 2018, the IRS required individuals receiving alimony to report the payments as income, which to some supported spouses, was frustrating.
In 2017, the President introduced new tax laws that changed how parties handled alimony payments for tax purposes. What once used to be a tax deduction for the paying spouse is no longer an option, meaning the paying spouse receives zero tax credit for payments made throughout the year. Additionally, the recipient of the support no longer must report the payments as income.
It’s important for divorcing couples to consider the newest tax laws before creating an agreement for spousal support.