Although divorce ends your marriage, it doesn’t always terminate your obligation to support your spouse financially. Alimony (also called spousal maintenance) is an ongoing payment from one spouse to the other. The purpose of maintenance is to ensure that both spouses are financially stable during the divorce process and after.
In Vermont, judges may order any of the following types of maintenance:
Temporary support. The purpose of temporary support is to provide a lower-earning spouse the financial means to continue to make ends meet during the divorce process. Temporary maintenance ends when the judge finalizes the divorce. (Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 594a.)
Rehabilitative maintenance. This is the most common type of spousal maintenance in Vermont. Rehabilitative support is short-term, and judges order it when a needy spouse has the potential to be self-supporting but may need time to acquire education or job training necessary to find employment. The court will usually set an end date or specific event for rehabilitative support to terminate. If the recipient feels more time is needed, that spouse can request a review with the court. (Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 752 (a).)
Permanent support. Permanent support orders are rare. The court reserves long-term support for cases where one spouse can’t work due to age or disability. Or, if there is a significant difference between the spouse’s incomes, a spouse experienced a lengthy absence from the job market (stay-at-home parents) or other extenuating circumstances. Unless the court orders otherwise, permanent support continues indefinitely or until a review reveals the award is no longer necessary.
In Vermont, spousal maintenance is gender-neutral, meaning either spouse can request it in a divorce. However, for the court to consider awarding support, the requesting spouse must show a need for maintenance by demonstrating:
There is no formula for courts to use when deciding the type, amount, and duration of spousal maintenance. Instead, the court will evaluate several factors:
Additionally, until July 2021, judges must also consider the percentage of the difference between the spouses’ gross income. (Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 752 (b) (8).)
The amount, type, and duration of spousal maintenance don’t have to fall into the hands of the judge. Couples who wish to maintain control over their support award can negotiate the terms that work best and present a signed settlement agreement for the judge to sign. As long as the agreement is fair to both spouses, the court will approve it.
Unless the order states otherwise, either spouse can request a modification of a support order in the future. Before the judge changes an existing order, the requesting spouse must prove there is a real, substantial, and unanticipated change of circumstances since the last order. (Vt. Stat. Ann. tit. 15, § 758.)
For example, if you’re ordered to pay rehabilitative support and you involuntarily lose your job earning $80,000 but begin working a new job making $60,000, the judge may revise your order to include your new, lower income. It’s the requesting spouse’s burden to prove why the current award is unfair and should change.
If you experienced a change of circumstances that impacts your ability to pay support, you must file a formal request with the court as soon as possible. While you wait for the judge’s decision, it’s imperative that you continue paying according to the current order.
Failure to pay could result in the judge requiring you to attend a hearing or pay fines, seizing your property or tax returns, or (for the most serious offenders) sending you to jail.
If you’re not receiving court-ordered payments, you can file a request with the court to ask for help enforcing the order.
Vermont is unique in that spousal maintenance doesn’t automatically terminate when the recipient of support remarries or cohabitates with a partner in a “marriage-like” relationship. Instead, if the supported spouse remarries, the paying spouse can request a review of support and modification or termination.
The court will only end maintenance if the recipient spouse’s remarriage (or cohabitation) significantly improves the financial circumstances of the spouse. (Johnson v. Johnson, 580 A. 2d 503.)
It’s common for the court to order periodic payments (usually monthly) for spousal maintenance. Judges typically include an income withholding order that directs the paying spouse’s employer to withhold the payments from the spouse’s income and forward it to the court.
Though rare, if the paying spouse is self-employed or doesn’t receive a steady paycheck, the court may order lump-sum payments or require the spouse to turn over title to real or personal property as a form of payment.
For divorces finalized before January 1, 2019, paying spouses can deduct maintenance payments on their taxes and recipients must report and pay taxes on the income. However, in 2017, the President of the United States passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which removed the tax-deduction benefit and the reporting requirements for spousal maintenance for divorces finalized on or after January 1, 2019.
Paying spouses must evaluate the impact of the new tax law before agreeing to pay spousal maintenance. If you’re unsure how the new tax law impacts you and your finances, speak with an experienced tax and family law attorney near you.