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How does spousal maintenance (or alimony) work in New York?

How does alimony work in New York? Read on to learn what you need to know about how alimony, known as spousal maintenance, works in NY.

evident Editorial Team
March 7, 2024
Woman's hands with wedding rings

If you’re wondering how alimony works in New York, then the first thing to know is that alimony is called “spousal maintenance” in New York. 

This article covers what spousal maintenance is, how courts in New York determine spousal maintenance, and other key details.

Key Takeaways

What is spousal maintenance?

Spousal maintenance, commonly referred to as alimony, is a payment that one spouse makes to the other to provide financial support during or following a separation or divorce.

Spousal maintenance can be given both during a divorce (pendente lite) and after a couple is divorced. The main purpose of spousal maintenance is to help the spouse in need become financially independent following a divorce. 

Contested vs. uncontested divorce

In New York, spousal maintenance is considered in both contested and uncontested divorce. An uncontested divorce is when both spouses mutually agree to get a divorce.

A contested divorce occurs when either spouse disagrees about getting a divorce or the effects on finances, children, or marital property following the divorce. 

Spousal maintenance vs. spousal support in New York

In New York, “spousal support” is the term used for payments made when a couple is still married and one spouse financially supports the other. This type of support is handled in Family Court and only applies to couples who are currently married.

Spousal support might be relevant, for example, if a couple in New York no longer cohabitates but has not filed for divorce. There is no time limit to how long spousal support is paid in New York. 

Spousal maintenance, meanwhile, applies when a couple begins the legal divorce process. Divorce is the final, legal ending of a marriage by court order.

As mentioned, “spousal maintenance” is the legal term for what may be more commonly referred to as alimony in New York. 

When is spousal maintenance awarded in New York?

Either spouse can request a maintenance award when filing for a divorce in New York. When making a spousal maintenance award, courts in New York consider:

  • The standard of living maintained during the marriage 
  • The property or income (or lack thereof) of both spouses

Keep in mind that there are several steps to how a court determines alimony in New York: first, the court must decide whether to award spousal maintenance, and then the court will consider questions such as the amount of any alimony; the type of alimony (rehabilitative, temporary, or permanent); and the duration of payments.

Courts in New York use a specific formula to calculate the amount of spousal maintenance to be paid by the higher-earning spouse. Note that the formula used to calculate spousal maintenance in New York is different for couples who do not have minor children, but more on that below.

What are the different types of spousal maintenance in New York?

As mentioned, spousal maintenance awards in New York can be:

  • Temporary 
  • Rehabilitative
  • Permanent

Temporary spousal maintenance

Temporary maintenance, or “alimony pendente lite,” is temporary financial support to help the receiving spouse make ends meet during the divorce process. These payments end when the judge issues the final order of divorce.

For temporary maintenance, New York courts must follow a formula to determine the correct amount. Keep in mind, though, that the judge still has discretion when determining the amount of temporary maintenance.  

Rehabilitative spousal maintenance

Rehabilitative maintenance is another form of temporary maintenance that is commonly awarded to spouses who have exited the workforce to raise a family. 

Courts in New York will grant rehabilitative maintenance in cases where one spouse may need temporary financial support to gain the job skills or education necessary to obtain meaningful employment and become financially independent. 

Permanent spousal maintenance

Permanent spousal maintenance is aimed at providing financial support for basic needs (such as housing and food) and is decided after the judgment of divorce is finalized by the court. 

Permanent spousal maintenance is not necessarily permanent. This type of maintenance may be ordered indefinitely, for a fixed period of time specified by the court, or until financial circumstances change. 

Courts in New York will determine the duration of permanent maintenance based on a variety of factors, including: 

  • Length of the marriage 
  • The amount of discrepancy between each spouse’s income 
  • Whether one spouse is incapable of becoming self-sufficient (for instance, due to poor health or being unable to work) 

How is spousal maintenance paid in New York and how long does it last?

So how is spousal maintenance paid in New York, and how long does it last? Let's begin with the structure and then explore how long these payments last. 

Structure of spousal maintenance in New York

The couple can mutually agree upon the payment structure of spousal maintenance, and if they do, the court will generally not interfere. In cases where the couple cannot agree on a payment structure, the court will decide how the payments will be structured. 

New York courts will typically order maintenance to be paid periodically, usually monthly. Additionally, courts may issue an “income withholding order” where the specified payment amount will be deducted from the paying spouse’s wages directly from their employer and transferred to the receiving spouse. 

In some cases, the couple may agree on a lump-sum payment of the maintenance to be paid by the supporting spouse to the receiving spouse on a specified date. This is less common due to the financially demanding nature of this payment structure.  

How long does spousal maintenance last in New York? 

In New York, spousal maintenance can be either “durational” or “non-durational.” Durational spousal maintenance is a form of short-term maintenance. Non-durational maintenance, meanwhile, is permanent. 

Durational spousal maintenance

Durational maintenance is ordered by the court for a fixed period in cases where the spouse receiving payments has the potential to become self-supporting, such as with rehabilitative spousal maintenance.  

The guidelines (found in Appendix E) for determining durational post-divorce maintenance used by NY courts include:

  • Marriages lasting 0-15 years: maintenance should last 15%-30% of the length of the marriage 
  • Marriages lasting 15-20 years: maintenance should last 30%-40% of the length of the marriage
  • Marriages lasting 20+ years: maintenance should last 35%-50% of the length of the marriage

Non-durational spousal maintenance

On the other hand, non-durational maintenance is permanent and only ends if either spouse dies or the spouse receiving maintenance payments remarries

This type of maintenance is commonly awarded to spouses who need permanent financial support, such as in cases where a spouse is in poor health or has other circumstances that make a spouse unable to become self-supporting. 

How do courts calculate spousal maintenance in New York?

calculator and pen

In New York,  the amount and duration of spousal maintenance are determined by considering 20 factors. These factors may include, but are not limited to:

  • The age, health, income, and property of both spouses
  • Whether a spouse cares for children or other family members needing assistance
  • The length of the marriage and standard of living established during the marriage
  • The present and future earning capacity of both spouses, including the ability of the spouse seeking maintenance to become self-supporting
  • Other effects and consequences resulting from the divorce (insurance benefits, distribution of assets, wasteful dissipation) 

After determining if spousal maintenance is appropriate, courts in New York will calculate the amount of maintenance based on a specific formula. The NY Courts website has resources to help you determine what a spousal maintenance award might be in your case. 

It is also important to note that for temporary spousal support, New York caps a paying spouse’s income at $184,000. This means that courts will not consider additional income past this threshold when calculating maintenance, although the judge may find another reason to increase the spousal maintenance award based on other factors, such as: 

  • Age and health of both parties
  • Length of the marriage
  • Standard of living during the marriage 
  • Child support payments
  • Present and future earning capacity of both parties

Additionally, all forms of spousal maintenance end in cases where: 

  • Either spouse passes away 
  • The spouse receiving maintenance remarries 
  • The court orders maintenance to end on a specific date 
  • The couple agreed on a specified date (in cases where the couple mutually agrees on the duration without the court’s interference) 

Reaching your own spousal maintenance agreement 

Courts in New York allow couples to mutually agree on a spousal maintenance plan that is best for their specific needs and circumstances. If this is the case, the court will not interfere with your agreed-upon amount, duration, and structure. 

Reaching your own agreement with your spouse also allows you to control the process and the outcome. Otherwise, you leave it to the court's discretion and must abide by whatever the judge decides, with the accompanying legal responsibilities and expectations. (It can also help you keep divorce costs in NY down).

How does child custody affect alimony in NY?

children on playground

Whether a couple has children or not has a significant impact on spousal maintenance. In New York, spousal maintenance must be determined before the court can calculate child support.  

For couples with minor children, courts in New York use a different formula to calculate the amount and duration of spousal maintenance. The formula is very similar to the formula used to calculate maintenance for couples without children, but the percentages are slightly different. 

Using this formula for calculating spousal maintenance typically lowers the maintenance award. This is because child support will also have to be awarded following the spousal maintenance award, which will reduce the paying spouse's income. 

Modifying spousal maintenance agreements in New York

So can you modify a spousal maintenance agreement in New York after the court has finalized it? Yes, either spouse can request a maintenance award modification (or even a termination) if there has been a change in the circumstances of either spouse’s financial situation. 

Circumstances the court may consider include:

  • The receiving spouse’s financial position changes negatively due to economic circumstances (increase in prices or taxes) or is unable to be self-sufficient
  • The receiving spouse’s financial position changes positively (receiving a substantial inheritance or beginning a new relationship) 
  • Any substantial change in either spouse’s financial circumstances (good faith retirement, new job, substantial increase in income, loss of job, serious illness)
  • Termination of child support and the effect it has on the receiving spouse’s financial situation

The spouse requesting a modification to the maintenance order must provide proof of the changes in circumstances.

FAQs about alimony in New York

Do you have to pay taxes on spousal maintenance? 

For federal taxes, spousal maintenance payments are tax-deductible for the paying spouse and taxable income for the receiving spouse for divorces finalized before December 31, 2018.  

For divorces finalized after January 1, 2019, maintenance payments are not tax-deductible for the payor spouse and are not considered income for the payee spouse.

NY state tax law differs, though, and alimony payments are still deductible for the payor spouse and count as income for the payee spouse.

How can I begin the process of receiving spousal maintenance?

To take steps towards receiving maintenance, the spouse seeking alimony must initiate divorce proceedings.​​ This occurs by filing a Summons with Notice or a Summons with a Verified Complaint (initial divorce documents) with a request for spousal maintenance.

The spouse then must serve the divorce paperwork on the other spouse and complete the Annual Income Worksheet and Maintenance Guidelines Worksheet (used by the court to calculate the amount of maintenance to be awarded).  

It is crucial to make sure each form is filled out correctly to ensure maintenance awards will be accurately calculated and awarded. A mistake on these documents may result in no maintenance payments being awarded.

It may be helpful to contact a divorce attorney to assist with completing this paperwork. 

What if my spouse fails to pay maintenance?

If a spouse fails to pay, the supported spouse can file a complaint with the court. This allows the court to assist in collecting payments. 

Enforcement remedies for failure to pay include: 

  • Obtaining an Income Withholding Order
  • Obtaining a money judgment for the unpaid maintenance
  • Holding the spouse in contempt of court
  • Jail time 

These remedies will be enforced even if the former spouse no longer resides in New York.

What if my spouse and I are able to mutually agree on a maintenance award?

New York laws allow couples to make private agreements that are not subject to the required guidelines and calculations used in courts. This allows couples to craft their own terms regarding maintenance amount, duration, and structure. 

If this is the case, the court will not interfere, and couples can customize spousal maintenance tailored to their specific needs and circumstances. 

The final word on spousal maintenance in New York

So how does alimony work in New York? Let's recap the key takeaways. 

Alimony, called spousal maintenance in NY, is a payment that one spouse makes to the other to provide financial support during a separation or following a divorce. 

Spousal maintenance in New York can be temporary, rehabilitative, or permanent. The payment structure and duration depend on the specific factors in each case, including the length of the marriage. 

Courts in New York consider 20 different factors when determining whether spousal maintenance is appropriate. Courts must also follow a specific formula when calculating maintenance, though the formula varies depending on whether the couple has minor children.

Periodic monthly payments are the most common form of spousal maintenance payments. Courts may also issue an income withholding order that deducts the specified payment amount from the paying spouse's wages directly through their employer. 

Spousal maintenance agreements ordered by courts in New York can be modified or even terminated if there has been a change in the circumstances of either spouse's financial situation. 

Once again, you and your spouse can reach your own mutually agreed-upon spousal maintenance arrangement that works best based on your specific needs and circumstances. In this case, the court will not interfere with your arrangement, and you can avoid any emotionally-charged legal fights, saving you time, money, and headache.