Alimony; It Ain’t What it Used to Be

Alimony; It Ain’t What it Used to Be

The subject of alimony (also called spousal support or spousal maintenance) is where we’ve seen the deepest lines drawn in the sand and the biggest battles in divorce negotiations.  Most divorcing spouses recognize the fairness of a somewhat even split of marital assets, the importance of shared child custody and visitation rights, and child support is often determined by state-mandated guidelines.  But alimony?  This is an area where both sides often dig in their heels; the payer-spouse insisting they cannot afford the proposed support payments or such payments are unreasonable, whereas the recipient-spouse is often adamant that a lesser amount will force them (and custodial children) to a much lower standard of living, citing that “he can certainly afford it if he cared about his family”, etc.

Alimony is indeed an important aspect of the negotiations, especially for a non-working spouse and/or parent.  In many cases, this is the wife, who may also be the mother and custodial parent.  She may have either given up her career – or never started one – in order to become a stay-at-home mother or only worked part-time and assumed all or the majority of household responsibilities.  If she had done so over many years, it may be unlikely that she could either join or re-enter the work-force at a sufficient income level, lacking enough marketable skills and work experience.  In the past, these circumstances may have been recognized by the courts and extended spousal support (over 5 years) was common in divorce settlements.   Today, alimony rules are changing rapidly.

Many state courts, including RI and now Massachusetts, are becoming less generous in awarding extended alimony.   Beginning in the 1970’s when women were becoming a significant and common part of the workforce, courts began regarding alimony as more ‘rehabilitative’ rather than extended or permanent.  The idea was that a shorter period (ex: 3-4 years) of spousal support would be sufficient for the recipient-spouse to learn new, employable skills and re-enter the workforce to support themselves.   Today, with most women having their own careers and income-earning ability, the courts also seem more inclined to grant limited-alimony payment periods and lesser monthly amounts, more as a supplement to the recipient’s earned income than to fully support a lifestyle.   If the wife actually maintained a job and/or career during the marriage, or the marriage was short, there may be no alimony granted at all. There are exceptions, of course.  In a few recent cases we’ve seen, the divorcing wives were stay-at-home mothers for over 20 years with limited computer or technology skills or any work experience.  Now in their late 50’s to their 60’s, the prospects of even finding administrative work were daunting.  In these cases, longer-term spousal support may be still awarded.  But this is becoming less and less common according to attorneys we have worked with.

A common source of debate in alimony negotiations is often the difference between the ability of the payer-spouse to pay and whether the cited need of the recipient spouse is real or not.  Many times, we have witnessed a husband’s claim that alimony proposals are unrealistic or that his ex-wife “can just work more to earn more income”, often prompting an angry retort that she might do so, except she also has custodial parent duties to their children that prevent her from seeking more income.  Husbands may also claim they simply don’t have the income to support their own household and their ex-wife and the children in the same manner as before the divorce.

The intense negotiations between spouses and their attorneys, (as well as the trend toward lower alimony awards by the courts), points to the advantages of using financial analysis and planning in the divorce process.   Incorporating income sources alongside one or both post-divorce budgets and including potential drawdowns from liquid assets, (such as cash savings, brokerage investment accounts and other sources), can help demonstrate to both spouses, their attorneys and perhaps even the court, whether proposed alimony paid and received is workable or not for one or both spouses.   Doing so may also help to speed along the negotiation process, since the analysis may remove the distrust and suspicion of one or both parties’ claims about their ability to pay or accept a proposed level of spousal support.   In addition, with the advent of lesser alimony awards today, understanding whether divided assets may be available or tapped to supplement lower incomes to support necessary expenses may be critical to a divorcing woman and her financial future.

Read other articles we have published in the Rhode Island Women’s Journal, or contact us via our Contact Us page to receive other free articles and information about divorce finance and planning.