Alimony (known as "maintenance" in Wisconsin law) is intended to provide some financial assistance for a spouse who needs it during a divorce and for a period of time after the divorce is final. If you or your spouse is (or will be) requesting alimony as part of the process of filing for divorce in Wisconsin, you should understand how it works and how judges make alimony decisions—even if you hope to reach an agreement on the issue and avoid a trial.
Basically, there are three kinds of alimony in Wisconsin:
Judges may order one spouse to pay temporary support to the other while the divorce process is underway. (Wis. Stat. § 767.225(1)(d) (2023).)
Typically, temporary maintenance continues until the divorce is final. However, the judge may consider a request to change the amount of support prior to that if there's a good reason to do so.
Limited-term alimony is the most common type of post-divorce alimony in Wisconsin. Sometimes called "rehabilitative alimony," it's intended to provide financial support for a certain period of time so that the recipient spouse can get the training or education (or both) needed to improve employment prospects and become self-supporting.
You'll typically see limited-term alimony in cases where one spouse has taken time away from full-time employment while caring for children and the family home or supporting the other spouse's career or business.
These days, judges rarely award maintenance for an indefinite period of time. However, this type of alimony might still be appropriate for some spouses who aren't likely to become self-supporting after a lengthy marriage because of their age, medical condition, or a very long absence from the job market. The purpose is to ensure, as best as possible, that the needy spouse can remain financially stable despite those obstacles to employment.
Although this type of maintenance is sometimes called permanent alimony, it doesn't necessarily last until a spouse dies. It may end under certain other conditions, and the judge may consider a request from the paying spouse to stop the payments if there's been a change in circumstances (more on both of those issues below).
Before judges award limited-term or indefinite alimony, they must consider all of the following circumstances:
Even though the law also allows judges to consider any other relevant factors, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has held that judges may not consider a spouse's misconduct in their alimony decisions. (Wis. Stat. § 767.56(1c) (2023); Dixon v. Dixon, 319 N.W.2d 846 (Wis. Sup. Ct.1982).)
Wisconsin law doesn't provide a formula for calculating temporary alimony. Rather, the judge should look at the same factors that apply to the other types of alimony. (Wis. Stat. § 767.225(1n)(a) (2023).) It's up to the judge to decide what's fair and reasonable based on the couple's circumstances.
One of the purposes of temporary alimony is to maintain the standard of living the couple enjoyed during the marriage, while the divorce plays out. That isn't possible in most cases, because it's more expensive to maintain two households than a shared one. Still, judges do the best they can to maintain the status quo. And as long as their awards are reasonable, appellate courts won't overrule them.
Another reason for temporary alimony in Wisconsin is to help needy spouses protect their rights in the divorce process itself. The law specifically says that temporary maintenance may include the supported spouse's attorney's fees and other expenses for bringing or responding to the divorce case.
It's worth pointing out that a temporary alimony award won't necessarily be the same as any award for post-divorce maintenance.
Either spouse may request alimony, regardless of gender. Typically, if one spouse needs financial help and the other can afford to pay it, the judge may order the higher-earning spouse to pay maintenance to the lower-earning spouse.
Note that if a judge has awarded both alimony and child support, the payments may be combined into what's known as a "family support" order. (Wis. Stat. § 767.531 (2023).)
Wisconsin law requires that alimony and child support payments be withheld from the paying spouse's wages and sent by the spouse's employer to a state agency for distribution to the spouse receiving support. (Wis. Stat. § 767.75 (2023).) The purpose is to avoid the problems that often arose when the paying spouse was supposed to make payments directly to the receiving spouse, but either failed to make the payments on time or missed payments completely.
Although it may be possible to pay alimony in a one-time lump sum, most spouses don't have the financial wherewithal to choose that option. So maintenance is usually paid monthly.
Temporary alimony ends when the divorce is finalized. Limited-term maintenance lasts as long as the judge determines it will be needed to enable the recipient to become self-supporting, based on the specific circumstances in the case. The order will generally specify when limited-term alimony payments will stop. Indefinite-length alimony has no set end date.
Any alimony obligation will end when either spouse dies or when the receiving spouse remarries. In the case of remarriage, however, paying spouses may not simply stop making payments. They need to go to court to apply for a new order vacating the existing maintenance order. (Wis. Stat. §§ 767.56(2c), 767.59(3) (2023).)
Whether you're paying or receiving alimony, you may file a motion (legal request) with the court to modify alimony payments. However, you'll need to show that there's been a substantial change in circumstances. (Wis. Stat. § 767.59(1f)(a) (2023).)
A substantial change is one that affects the recipient's need for support or the other spouse's ability to pay, such as when a spouse has become permanently disabled or involuntarily unemployed. Wisconsin law also states that a substantial change in the cost of living for either spouse may be enough to permit a modification of the alimony award. (Wis. Stat. § 767.59(1k) (2023).)
Be aware that in most situations, unless you and your spouse have an agreement about the proposed changes, alimony modification proceedings involve complicated legal issues that are best handled by an experienced family law attorney.
If your divorce was final before 2019, the spouse who's paying alimony may continue to deduct the payments for purposes of federal income taxes, and the recipient must report those payments as income. However, for all couples who divorced after 2018, the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated any tax deduction or income reporting requirements for alimony. That means the Internal Revenue Service and the state of Wisconsin won't count these payments as income for the recipient, and the payor spouse won't get the deduction.
As with all other issues in your divorce, you and your spouse always have the option of reaching a settlement agreement that addresses whether one of you will pay alimony and, if so, how much the payments will be, and how long the maintenance will last.
If you're having trouble agreeing about any of these issues, divorce mediation can help you resolve your differences. And if you're hesitant about negotiating a compromise, it may help to know that going to trial increases the cost of divorce exponentially, as well as making the process more stressful and take longer.