Alimony is a concept that is often misunderstood by many going through the divorce process. It’s a common misconception that judges award alimony as a way to “punish” a spouse for marital misconduct. To the contrary, courts in Rhode Island divorce cases will only award support if one spouse needs financial help, and the other can pay. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-16 (a).)
When you file for divorce, if you’re concerned about making ends meet while you go through the legal process, you can ask the court for temporary alimony from your spouse. The court will evaluate your case and decide whether it’s appropriate. If it is, temporary alimony will continue for the duration of the divorce process and ends when the judge finalizes the divorce.
If you need support after the divorce, the judge may award any of the following types of alimony:
Rehabilitative support is the most common type of alimony in Rhode Island. In one case, the court stated that “alimony is a rehabilitative tool intended to provide temporary support until a spouse is self-sufficient, and is based purely on need.” (Berard v. Berard, 749 A.2d 577 (2000).)
The court prefers to award short-term alimony for a duration lasting only as long as the recipient needs to become self-supporting. The purpose of rehabilitative support is to allow the supported spouse the time necessary to find employment, go back to school, or acquire job skills to enter the workforce and become financially independent.
Permanent support is rare, and courts typically reserve it for cases where the recipient spouse can’t become self-supporting due to disability, declining health, advanced age, or a prolonged absence from the job market. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-16 (2))
Either spouse can request alimony, but it’s not an automatic right. If you can demonstrate a need for support and that your spouse can pay, the next step is for the court to decide the type and duration of alimony. The court will evaluate the following factors:
No single factor is more important than the other, and courts will evaluate each one carefully. The judge has broad discretion on the type and duration of the alimony award in each case. As with any other divorce-related issues, if you and your spouse agree on an alimony award, the court will approve it as long as it’s fair to both spouses.
Your support order will dictate the length of your alimony award, and it’s up to the judge how long it will last. For example, if you’re receiving rehabilitative support, the judge might order that it continue for three years and require you to prove an on-going need for alimony if you haven't become self-supporting by the end of that time.
If the court awards permanent support without an end date, it will continue indefinitely (or until the court modifies or terminates it later.) However, if the supported spouse remarries, alimony terminates immediately. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-16 2).)
Most alimony payments are periodic, meaning the paying spouse pays a monthly or quarterly sum to the recipient. Sometimes the court will issue an income withholding order with the support order, which requires the paying spouse’s employer to withhold alimony from the paycheck and forward it to the recipient. (R.I. Gen. Laws §15-16-2 (7).) If your spouse fails to pay, you can ask the court for help enforcing your order. The court may order your spouse to pay fines, attend a hearing, or spend time in jail for not following the court order.
In some cases, the court may order a lump-sum payment, which could mean one payment total, which is intended to cover the amount of alimony the supported spouse would have received over time.
In rare circumstances, the judge may order the paying spouse to turn over title to personal or real property (not separate property) in lieu of an alimony award. (R.I. Gen. Laws § 15-5-16.1 (a).)
You and your spouse can agree to the terms of your alimony award, but it must be in writing and approved by the court.
Either spouse can ask the court to modify or terminate alimony payments. The requesting spouse must demonstrate a substantial change in circumstances since the last order. For example, if a paying spouse involuntarily loses a job, becomes disabled, or otherwise can’t afford to pay, the court may consider modifying or terminating the award.
Additionally, if the recipient becomes financially independent sooner than the alimony order requires, the judge may modify or discontinue the alimony award.
Before December 31, 2018, alimony payments were tax-deductible to the payor and reportable income to the recipient. However, changes to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act removed the tax-deduction benefits and reporting requirements for alimony.
For alimony agreements entered into on or after January 1, 2019, the paying spouse will no longer be able to deduct these payments on their tax returns, and the supported spouse will not have to report it as income anymore.
Couples considering alimony awards must consider how the tax changes impact their situations before finalizing an agreement. It’s important to speak with an experienced tax expert and/or divorce attorney in your state as soon as possible.