By Mindy Hitchcock,
How is spousal support (alimony) determined?
Spousal support is not part of the property settlement, but is considered separately, after the property has been divided. The goals of spousal support are to balance the incomes and needs of the parties so that neither person’s standard of living is greatly affected, and to support the recipient spouse in becoming self-sufficient. The courts consider a number of factors in deciding whether to award spousal support, and must make findings on each factor that is relevant. These factors include:
- Past Relations and Conduct of the Parties: The court may consider the conduct or “fault” of the party during the marriage (such as infidelity or substance abuse), even though Michigan is a no-fault divorce state.
- Length of the Marriage: The fact that a marriage was long-term (10 years or more) is especially relevant where one spouse has no career or marketable skills.
- Ability to Work: Courts have ruled that an award of temporary spousal support is unfair where there is serious doubt about a spouse's ability to become fully self-supporting after an award of temporary spousal support has expired; a longer-term support arrangement is likely in that case.
- Source and Amount of Property Awarded: The focus here is on the earning potential of the marital assets awarded to the recipient spouse, especially when both parties have substantial assets and there is a large disparity in their respective incomes. If the assets aren’t going to generate income, then the judge may award support, on the basis that a person should not have to dissipate a property award in order to pay for necessities.
- Ages of the Parties: An older spouse will have a more difficult time becoming self-supporting after a long marriage and the court will take this into account.
- Ability to Pay: The ability to pay spousal support includes the earning capacity of the paying spouse. Where one spouse intentionally fails to earn as much as possible in order to avoid paying support, the judge may order that spouse to pay based on imputed income, meaning whatever is the judge’s idea of what the person could earn.
- Present Situation of the Parties: Looks at the effect of different factors on present ability to pay and the present or anticipated needs of the spouse seeking support.
- Present and Future Needs of the Parties: The court must evaluate the combined effect of various factors on present and future needs of the spouse seeking support.
- Health of the Parties: Health is relevant to the ability to work and the personal needs of the spouse seeking support, as well as the supporting spouse’s ability to continue paying.
- Marital Standard of Living: One purpose of spousal support is to ensure that both partners continue to live in a manner consistent with how they lived during the marriage, to the extent possible. Given that the same amount of money that was being used to support one household now must spread to two, this isn’t always possible, but it is the goal.
- General Principles of Equity: Courts can use any other factor they wish in determining what amount of alimony is fair, and deciding how long alimony should last.
If I get a support award, how long will it last?
To decide the duration of spousal support, judges look at factors such as:
- The duration of the marriage;
- Each party’s contributions to the marital estate;
- Both spouses’ ages;
- Both spouses' health;
- The parties' station in life during the marriage;
- The parties' needs and circumstances; and
- The paying party’s ongoing ability to pay and the recipient spouse’s likelihood of becoming self-supporting.
Can spousal support payments be modified?
Judges may modify spousal support orders in Michigan. But the right to ask for a change in spousal support is a right that can be waived (given up). When spouses include a statement in the divorce judgment saying that the spousal support provision is binding and nonmodifiable, they have both waived their rights to ask for a change.
However, waivers can only exist where there’s a consent judgment, meaning that the spouses have negotiated their own settlement terms. When the court enters a judgment after a trial, it can’t make spousal support nonmodifiable. Where spousal support is modifiable, the person making the request must show that there has been a significant change of circumstances, and has to show evidence of the change, such as the loss of a home or job, serious illness, or unexpected expenses of some kind.
When does spousal support end?
When spouses agree to a divorce settlement, the settlement agreement often includes a specified list of circumstances that would cause spousal support to end. Usually these include remarriage (or sometimes cohabitation) of the person being supported, death of either spouse, or a specific event, like the supported spouse earning a degree or certificate that should lead to gainful employment.
If the judgment doesn’t specify events that cause support to end, remarriage and cohabitation don’t automatically lead to a termination of support. However, support will end if the paying spouse can show that the other spouse engaged in fraud or duress in the process of negotiating the settlement. A judge might terminate support if the paying spouse can show a significant change in ability to pay.