Spoual Support Legal Information

OVERVIEW

Spousal support lawyers handle all matters related to spousal support -- formerly known as alimony. Spousal support is paid by one former spouse to the other. Generally, the person receiving spousal support cannot work, or hasn’t worked for a long time. Spousal support lawyers may also handle:

  • Support for a former same-sex partner.
  • Child support payments and other family law issues related to the spousal support.
  • Terminating spousal support.
  • Changing the terms of spousal support.
  • Disputes over dishonesty or nonpayment of support.

Spousal support is much less common now than it once was, because most families are now two-income families. That means spousal support is less likely to be granted than it once was. If it is granted, the chances are good that it was granted to the spouse who makes significantly less money -- or none at all.

 

“HOW DOES THE COURT DETERMINE SPOUSAL SUPPORT PAYMENTS?”

Spousal support was originally imagined as payments from a husband to a wife who did not work. However, that’s not the case anymore. No state requires spousal support payments based on gender alone. Generally, the court will determine support payments based on an income disparity -- one spouse making much more money than the other. Support is especially likely to be granted if one spouse has been a homemaker for many years. However, that’s not the end of the story. Some states have a specific formula that judges must use to determine payments; others leave it up to the discretion of a judge. Courts may take into account both spouses’:

  • Incomes.
  • Expenses.
  • Employment prospects.
  • Financial needs (including needs of any children living with them full-time).
  • Post-marital property and debts.
  • Lifestyles.
  • Contributions to the marriage and to the other person’s earning capacity.
  • Ages and health.
  • The length of the marriage.

Some states may also take into account any misbehavior during the marriage by either spouse, such as unfaithfulness or domestic abuse.


“CAN I MODIFY MY SPOUSAL SUPPORT PAYMENTS?”

Yes. Courts very commonly change spousal support orders to account for changes in both people’s lives, such as:

  • A new marriage for either spouse.
  • A new child or financial obligation for either spouse.
  • Loss of a job for the payer.
  • A new job for the payee.

You may be able to negotiate directly with your ex for an informal drop in your payments. However, it’s always best to back that up with a court order as soon as possible, in case the other spouse changes his or her mind. In order to change your payments, you’ll have to file a former petition with the court in the state where you got divorced. In that petition, you will have to show that there’s been a significant change in your circumstances. If the other person has already agreed to the change and is willing to say so in court, this can be a very short process.

You can also make this petition in cases where the other spouse doesn’t want the change. If that’s the case, you can expect it to take longer, and you may have to go to court.


“CAN I ASK FOR A TIME LIMIT ON SPOUSAL SUPPORT PAYMENTS?”

State laws are not consistent on time-limited spousal support payments, which are also called rehabilitative spousal support. In fact, some states require a time limit, while others don’t have it as an option at all. Time limits are intended to give the supported spouse time to go to school, earn a license, raise a baby or just get a job. Some are measured strictly by time deadlines, such as three years. Some limits are calculated according to the length of the marriage, or a percentage of the length of the marriage. And some spousal support is “reimbursement support,” in which a spouse who helped support the other through school is “paid back” after divorce.

If you don’t have a time limit on your spousal support, you may be able to petition the courts in your state for one. If you can’t, you can certainly still petition for an end to the payments -- but that end must be based on some material change in circumstances. Similarly, if you need to extend a deadline, you may be able to do so.


“CAN I ASK FOR SPOUSAL SUPPORT IF I DIDN’T ASK FOR IT DURING MY DIVORCE?”

In most states, you cannot ask for spousal support after the divorce is final. That’s true regardless of whether the spouses discussed it formally. However, there may be some exceptions. You may still be able to get spousal support if:

  • The other spouse was hiding assets or otherwise defrauding you during divorce.
  • You had a reasonable fear of the other spouse (usually because of domestic violence).
  • The court made a mistake.

If your former spouse is willing to make payments to you without a court order, that’s fine. But it’s best to get the agreement in writing, because it will be impossible to enforce. Before you make decisions on this, it’s best to consult a spousal support lawyer for advice.

 

“WHAT IF I CAN’T AFFORD MY SPOUSAL SUPPORT PAYMENTS?”

If you cannot afford your spousal support, the chances are good that you’ve had some financial changes in your life since the court order for support was made. If so, that’s good news for your case, because courts generally won’t modify a support order unless you can show that there were some changes in your circumstances. Good grounds for a change include:

  • Loss of a job.
  • An illness that’s expensive to treat and/or keeps you out of work.
  • A new baby or stepchild.
  • Disability.
  • Going back to school.

Depending on the circumstances and where you live, you may be able to request a temporary modification of spousal support or a permanent one.

 

“HOW CAN I COLLECT UNPAID SPOUSAL SUPPORT?”

In many states, the procedure for collecting unpaid spousal support are similar to the proceedings for collecting unpaid child support. The first step is always to talk to the other spouse, when possible. He or she may have missed a payment by accident, or have financial strains that make payment difficult. If you can work it out without going to court, it’s in everyone’s best interests to do so.

If that doesn’t work, you can return to court to ask for a contempt-of-court order. This is an order from the judge that punishes the other person for failing to follow a court order. It usually involves a small amount of jail time. Your spousal support lawyer will probably need to help with this.

Finally, many areas have agencies that help divorced people collect unpaid child support payments, and many of these handle spousal support payments as well. These agencies have the power to garnish wages, redirect tax refunds, put a lien on property and take other actions to get the unpaid support. Sometimes they can suspend the driver’s license of a “deadbeat” as well. You don’t always need a spousal support lawyer to help with this, but having an advocate can make the process go faster and get you your money sooner.

 

“WHAT CAN I DO IF I BELIEVE THE OTHER PERSON IS MISUSING SPOUSAL SUPPORT?”

It’s difficult to make the case that a former spouse is misusing payments that are intended for his or her maintenance. Maintenance is a broad term that encompasses many of the things a person needs. However, states generally require that those needs be reasonable. If you believe your former spouse is using spousal support payments to pay for luxuries, you may be able to have the payments reduced or eliminated by petitioning the court. Again, you’ll have to show a material change in circumstances, probably the circumstances of your former spouse. This can be hard to prove, but changes in your former spouse’s life that will likely support your petition could include:

  • Remarriage, domestic partnership or cohabitation.
  • A new job or a raise.
  • A large inheritance.
  • A child moving out.
  • Paying off debt or another financial burden.

 

PAYMENT

Spousal support lawyers are most often paid with flat fees or by the hour. Which payment plan you’ll get depends on the lawyer, where you live and what kind of services you need. If it’s simply a matter of filing some paperwork with the court, you’re most likely to get a flat fee. If there’s a dispute that takes you and your former spouse before a judge, you are more likely to be charged an hourly fee.

Your spousal support lawyer should tell you how he or she will bill you ahead of time. In many cases, spousal support lawyers offer free initial consultations at which you can discuss billing as well as how you can expect your case to go.