Alimony is a court-ordered financial payment that one spouse makes to the other during the divorce and for a period of time after the final divorce. If you're planning to get divorced or are already in the process, you and your spouse may agree (in writing) that one of you will pay the other a certain amount of alimony for a fixed amount of time. Otherwise, any time a spouse requests alimony as part of the process of filing for divorce in Pennsylvania, the judge will have to decide whether to grant the request and, if so, how much to award.
Even if you hope to reach a settlement agreement with your spouse, you should understand how alimony works in Pennsylvania and the rules judges must follow when they make alimony decisions.
Under Pennsylvania law, there are technically only two types of alimony: pendente lite (pre-divorce) and post-divorce. However, there are two other forms of payments between spouses—spousal support and equitable reimbursement—that are commonly referred to as alimony.
Pendente lite alimony in Pennsylvania is a payment one spouse must pay to the other while the divorce is in process. The purpose of pendente lite alimony is to allow the receiving spouse to:
Pendente lite alimony is temporary, and doesn't affect whether or how much alimony is awarded post-divorce. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3702 (2022).)
Pennsylvania courts award post-divorce alimony only when it is "necessary." To decide whether it's necessary, the judge must evaluate a list of factors. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3701 (2022).) Usually, a judge will award alimony when one spouse isn't able to support themselves through employment and the paying spouse is able to make the payments. The overall goal is to ensure that the supported spouse doesn't need support from the state.
Pennsylvania law requires spouses to support one another if they are able to do so. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 4321 (2022).) A request for spousal support means that one spouse is asking the court to order the other to make payments that will enable the receiving spouse to afford reasonable and necessary living expenses.
Spousal support orders are most common when spouses have separated but not filed for divorce. A spousal support order can't be in place at the same time as an order for alimony pendente lite—if one of the spouses files for divorce, the support order will be converted to a pendente lite order if there are outstanding financial issues that the spouses need to resolve.
It's common during a marriage that one spouse will support the family while the other goes to school or gets additional training, in the hopes that the family will benefit from the spouse's increased earning capacity. When the parties divorce before the benefit of the additional education is realized, though, it can be unfair to the spouse who supported the family.
To account for this potential injustice, Pennsylvania judges can award reimbursement to the supporting spouse. This reimbursement is not alimony: Unlike alimony, the goal is to compensate the supporting spouse—not to make sure that the supporting spouse's needs are met after the divorce. The judge will consider whether the supporting spouse received any benefit of the other's increased earning capacity, and may order periodic payments when it's fair under the circumstances.
The factors that Pennsylvania judges must consider when determining whether alimony is necessary and in determining the nature, amount, duration, and manner of payment of alimony include the:
(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3701(b) (2022).)
When a judge enters an order regarding alimony, they must put the reasons for the award or denial in writing.
Either spouse can request alimony in a Pennsylvania divorce proceeding.
Unlike child support awards, there's no specific formula for judges to use when calculating alimony. In general, Pennsylvania courts consider the standard of living the spouses had during the marriage, as well as the paying spouse's ability to pay. Pennsylvania judges can also require one of the spouses to pay for the other's medical insurance and uninsured medical expenses when appropriate.
If you're concerned about the amount a judge might award in your divorce case, you and your spouse can negotiate an alimony agreement without the judge's input. If you come to an agreement, you can submit it to the court for review and approval. If the judge approves it, the court will issue an alimony order.
Pennsylvania judges have a lot of discretion when deciding how long an alimony award should last. The award can be for a definite or indefinite period of time—the main requirement is that it be "reasonable under the circumstances." (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3701(c) (2022).) For example, the judge might award alimony for as long as it takes for the supported spouse to receive training to become self-sufficient, or order that alimony payments stop when a certain event happens, such as selling the family home.
Pennsylvania judges usually award indefinite (permanent) alimony only when circumstances make it unlikely that the supported spouse will ever become self-supporting. For example, when the supported spouse has a serious health condition or has depended on the other spouse's income for a very long period of time (to the point that they won't be able to get training to be employed on their own).
If the parties have a written settlement agreement addressing alimony, the terms of the settlement agreement control when (and if) the payments have an end date. A court can't terminate (or modify) an award that was agreed upon by the spouses unless the agreement gives the court power to do so. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3105(c) (2022).)
Any end date in the alimony order governs when alimony ends. Even when there's a set end date in the order, the payor spouse is no longer required to pay alimony if the supported spouse remarries. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3701(e) (2022).) The obligation also ends if the supported spouse cohabitates with another person—lives with another person as a married couple would.
The death of one of the parties will also affect alimony: The requirement to pay alimony ends when the supported spouse dies. When the paying spouse dies, alimony payments end unless the parties agreed or the court ordered them to continue after death. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3707 (2022).)
Either spouse can request a modification—either to reduce or increase alimony—from the court, but only when the spouses don't have a written agreement not to change the order. As long as modification isn't prohibited by an agreement or order, a Pennsylvania judge can modify an alimony order when there are substantial and continuing changes in the circumstances of either party. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3701(e) (2022).) For example, a change of income resulting from retirement might constitute a substantial change to modify an alimony award.
To modify an alimony order, the party seeking the change should file a Petition to Modify Alimony Order. The court will schedule a hearing to decide the matter. To see examples of petitions, check out Montgomery County's instructions for filing a Petition to Modify and Philadelphia County's fillable petition. Check with your local court clerk to see if the court requires you to use a certain form.
You might be able to file a petition for modification of alimony online if you're also paying child support—you can submit the petition through the PA Child Support Program, which will forward the request to the county domestic relations section. A court will still have to approve the modification.
Alternatively, former spouses could agree to mediate the issue of changing or terminating their alimony order. If they reach an agreement, they can submit it to the court to be entered as a new order.
The court entering the alimony order can order that payments be made to either the domestic relations section of the court that either issued the order or the domestic relations section of the court where the receiving spouse lives. The domestic relations section of the court will distribute payments to the supported spouse as soon after receipt as possible. (23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3704 (2022).)
The domestic relations section keeps records of all payments and notifies the court when a payment is 30 days late.
When enforcement of an alimony order is necessary, Pennsylvania judges have options. They can:
(23 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 3703 (2022).)
If your divorce was final before 2019, the paying spouse may continue to deduct alimony payments for purposes of federal income taxes, and the recipient spouse must report those payments as income. However, for all couples who divorced in 2019 and beyond, the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated any tax deduction or income reporting requirements for alimony. That means the Internal Revenue Service won't count alimony payments as income for the recipient, and the paying spouse won't get the deduction. Pennsylvania state tax law mirrors the current federal law: Alimony is not considered taxable income to the recipient, and the paying party can't take a deduction for payments.