It’s no surprise that every aspect of the divorce process is confusing and emotional. But, when couples start discussing alimony, the conversation can turn from one filled with agreement and understanding to frustration and disappointment. Alimony (sometimes called spousal support) is a court-ordered payment from one spouse to the other during the divorce and sometimes, for a period after.
Pennsylvania is unique in that the law permits judges to award two kinds of support before finalizing the divorce: spousal support and alimony pendente lite. (13 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3702). Spousal support is available to a dependent spouse after the couple separates and ends when one spouse files for divorce.
Alimony pendente lite is available to spouses after someone files but before the judge finalizes the divorce. The purpose of alimony pendente lite is to allow the dependent spouse to maintain living expenses or pay for divorce-related costs during the divorce. (13 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3702)
When considering either type of pre-divorce support, the court must first determine that one spouse is financially dependent on the other and if so, the judge must use the state’s required calculator (guidelines) to determine the amount of support required. (13 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 4322 (a).)
The court will enter both spouse’s net incomes into its spousal support calculator, which will calculate a guideline payment. However, if the final number doesn’t meet the dependent spouse’s financial needs, that spouse can ask the judge to deviate from the calculation. (231 Pa. Code Rule 1910.16-1).
Most divorcing spouses are familiar with post-divorce support, which Pennsylvania courts call alimony. Judges reserve alimony awards for cases where one spouse is financially dependent on the other and need financial help to meet basic needs after the divorce. (13 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3701 (c))
The courts expect both spouses to be self-supporting after the divorce, but understand that some spouses need time to acquire job skills or education before finding employment that will lead to financial independence. Some courts call short-term support “rehabilitative” because the purpose is for the supporting spouse to provide financial help to the other while the supported spouse increases earning capacity and job prospects.
Permanent alimony isn’t as common as it was in years past, but it’s still available in situations where one spouse can’t become financially independent due to severe health problems, advanced age, or a long absence from the job market. The court usually reserves permanent support for long-term marriages.
Either spouse can request post-divorce alimony, but the court requires the requesting spouse to prove that it’s necessary before it will move forward in the process. (13 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3701 (a))
Unlike spousal support and alimony pendente lite, the court does not use a formula to calculate post-divorce alimony. Instead, judges must evaluate the following factors when deciding the type, duration, and amount of alimony:
At the end of the day, judges have broad discretion when deciding the final terms of an alimony award. If you and your spouse would like to maintain control over your support order, you can negotiate the terms on your own and then submit your written agreement to the court. Judges will typically honor any alimony agreement you make as long as it’s fair to both spouses. (13 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3701 (f).)
Spousal support terminates when one spouse files for divorce. Alimony pendente lite ends after the judge finalizes the divorce.
Short-term post-divorce alimony ends on a date set by the judge or when a specific event occurs. For example, the court may order you to pay rehabilitative support until your former spouse completes a degree program.
Permanent support is rarely indefinite, but if the judge doesn’t set an end date, it will continue until the court orders otherwise, or when:
Either spouse can ask the court to change or terminate an alimony award, but the court will only review the case after the requesting spouse proves that, since the last order, there is a change of circumstances that is substantial and continuing to make the current order unreasonable. (13 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3701 (e))
For example, if the court awards permanent support and the supporting spouse involuntarily loses a job or becomes disabled, the paying spouse can request a modification.
If you’re not receiving court-ordered support payments, you can file a formal request for enforcement with the court. The court may ask your spouse to pay fines, attorney costs, award interest, or order time in jail. (13 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3703)
Supporting spouses can elect to pay support in a lump-sum payment (one or installments) or in periodic payments (usually monthly or quarterly). If couples can’t agree on a payment method, the court may order the paying spouse to send payments to the domestic relations section of the court or order an income withholding—which directs the paying spouse’s employer to deduct alimony from the spouse’s paycheck. (13 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 3704.)
In the past, alimony payments were tax-deductible by the paying spouse and reportable income to the recipient. Beginning on January 1, 2019, alimony payments are no longer tax-deductible to the paying spouse or reportable income to the recipient. Pennsylvania updated its spousal support formula to reflect the changes to the tax law and judges will consider the impacts of the new tax laws when deciding alimony.
If you’re unsure how the tax changes will impact your alimony case, speak with an experienced attorney in your area.