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What is alimony?

What is alimony? Read on for everything you need know to about what alimony is and how it works.

evident Editorial Team
November 21, 2023
Alimony payment on table.
Key Takeaways

What is alimony?

Alimony is a payment made by one spouse to the other to provide financial support when a couple separates or gets divorced. Alimony is more commonly called spousal support or spousal maintenance, as most states have replaced the term alimony in their laws. 

There are several different types of alimony, and these differences impact things such as how alimony is paid, when alimony is paid, and how long alimony lasts. Additionally, alimony laws vary state by state, so how alimony works in Arizona differs from how alimony works in Illinois

But if you are looking for a general definition of alimony, it is a payment (or payments) made by one spouse to the other spouse in connection with a divorce or separation.

How long do you have to be married to get alimony?

State law varies, but often there is no minimum length of marriage required to be eligible for alimony. 

Rather than having a minimum threshold, many states use the length of the marriage as one of several factors that a judge considers when determining an alimony award. (For instance, the duration of the marriage is one of 17 specific factors courts consider when awarding alimony in Pennsylvania). 

So how long do you have to be married to your ex-spouse to get alimony? Usually, there is no specific amount of time required to be eligible to receive alimony. But the duration of the marriage will factor into a court’s decision, and courts are typically more likely to award alimony after longer marriages.

And in some states, palimony may be available for couples that never legally married, though the rules differ from alimony and it is less widely available.

Types of alimony

dollar, money, alimony

There are multiple types of alimony and each works a bit differently, impacting things like how the alimony is paid, when it is paid, and for how long it is paid. 

What types of alimony are available depends on state law, but here are a few of the common types of alimony. 

Temporary vs Permanent alimony

 The difference between temporary alimony and permanent alimony is when the alimony is paid – during divorce proceedings or after a divorce has been finalized. 

Temporary alimony is paid while a divorce is pending and ends when the divorce is finalized.  

Permanent alimony is the alimony arrangement established once the divorce is finalized. Note that permanent alimony is not actually “permanent” in the common usage of the term – permanent alimony can end, such as if the spouse receiving payments dies or remarries

Lump-sum vs periodic payments

Another key difference between types of alimony is whether it is paid in a lump-sum or periodic payments. 

Periodic payments are more common, often on a monthly schedule. Lump-sum payments, by contrast, are paid in a single installment and do not involve ongoing support. 

The pros and cons of periodic alimony vs. lump sum payments will depend on your situation. But again, periodic alimony payments are more common, usually in the form of monthly payments. 

Rehabilitative alimony & Reimbursement alimony

Two other types of alimony that are available in some states are rehabilitative and reimbursement alimony. 

Rehabilitative alimony is paid to a spouse to support things such as education or job training to help them take steps toward becoming financially independent. It typically ends after a fixed period of time or once the supported spouse becomes financially independent. 

Reimbursement alimony is paid to reimburse expenses associated with education or job training. It is not ongoing support. 

Types vary by state

As a reminder, the types of alimony that are available vary from state to state.

For instance, for alimony in New York, the available types are: temporary, rehabilitative, and permanent.

How long does alimony last?

How long alimony lasts depends on a few factors, including the type of alimony involved, the personal circumstances in play, and the state’s laws governing the alimony arrangement.

Some of the things that typically dictate how long alimony lasts include:

  • The court order, which may have specified a particular amount of time
  • Material changes in circumstances that alter the paying spouse’s ability to continue making payments or the recipient spouse’s need for support
  • State laws, which vary in how they treat alimony (although these differences would generally be reflected in the court’s order)

And as discussed above, different types of alimony work differently and thus last for different periods. Temporary alimony is paid while a divorce is pending but ends when it is finalized. Meanwhile, permanent alimony is paid after a divorce has been finalized and may continue indefinitely or end after a fixed period or when circumstances have changed. 

The type of alimony, therefore, dictates whether the payments will last for a fixed period, indefinitely, or for some other timeframe (such as the time it takes to become financially self-sufficient).

When does alimony end?

Examples of things that typically end alimony arrangements include:

  • Death of either spouse
  • Remarriage of the spouse receiving alimony
  • Cohabitation of the spouse receiving payments (i.e. they begin living with a new romantic partner)
  • Court order

Other changes in circumstances may cause alimony payments to end, or at least pause, but may require the paying spouse to request a modification from the court.  

How is alimony calculated?

One of the most common questions people have is how much alimony they might receive, or have to pay. The answer depends on what state you live in, though, as alimony laws vary state by state. (Indeed, as mentioned, even the terminology of alimony vs spousal support vs spousal maintenance changes depending on where you live).

Some factors are common, such as the length of the marriage. But it is hard to generalize across states because even the legislative goal of alimony can change by state.

For instance, Texas spousal maintenance laws are pretty strict and only aim to help a recipient spouse who requires financial assistance to meet their basic needs. Ohio, meanwhile, orders persons to pay spousal support that is aimed at helping the receiving spouse maintain a standard of living similar to what they enjoyed during the marriage.

Alimony vs Child Support

Many people going through a divorce encounter this question: what is the difference between alimony and child support? Both are payment arrangements that may be established in a divorce or separation agreement, but they are two separate arrangements. 

Alimony involves payments made by one spouse to the other to support that spouse. Child support payments, meanwhile, are payments made to a child’s custodian to support a child (or children). 

Thus the differences between alimony vs child support include both the purpose of the payments and how they are determined. (Child support is often more formulaic than alimony).

Modifying alimony arrangements

Many people wonder, “is it possible to modify alimony?” Yes, it is typically possible to modify alimony, though it usually requires a material change in circumstances. 

Examples of substantial changes in circumstances that would warrant modification of an alimony arrangement include:

  • The paying spouse retires
  • The paying spouse loses their job or otherwise loses their ability to pay alimony
  • The financial circumstances of the recipient spouse substantially improves (such as through an inheritance or an increase in income)

To modify an alimony arrangement, a party must make a request to the court. And until the court changes the arrangement, the original court order remains in effect and must be followed.

Reaching your own agreements: Contractual alimony

A key point to remember about alimony is that, like many issues in Family Law, the best outcomes often come from reaching your own agreement with your former spouse. That is not always possible, but when it is, it can save time, money, and stress compared to fighting things out. 

Many of the details about how alimony works covered above focus specifically on the laws and court processes that impact how a court will calculate alimony. But many people can and do come to their own alimony arrangements without having the court decide for them. 

If you and your spouse can agree on alimony terms, your state’s alimony laws may be instructive and guide the discussion. For instance, as noted, Texas’s alimony laws are less generous than Ohio’s, which may be relevant in discussions with your spouse. 

But contractual alimony arrangements do not necessarily have to be constrained by state laws if you and your spouse agree to an arrangement that works better for your particular circumstances. And again, reaching your own agreement can save money and stress compared to fighting things out in court.