How do courts determine the amount of spousal support to award?

Many common concerns during divorce are over spousal support. Some people worry they will have to pay it, while others worry they will not receive it. Spousal support, sometimes called alimony, is a payment or series of payments made from one former spouse to another. The purpose of this payment is to balance any unfair economic effects caused by the divorce.

Historically, spousal support involved a husband making payments to a wife who worked in the home and had limited means to support herself after the divorce. Today, either a man or a woman can be required to make spousal support payments if he or she is the higher-wage-earner. However, spousal support is not a factor in all divorces.

How is the amount of spousal support determined?

When determining if spousal support should be awarded or not, the court will consider the reasons for the marriage ending. When determining the amount and duration of a spousal support award, some of the factors the court will consider, include:

  • The obligations, needs and financial resources of each spouse
  • The standard of living established during the marriage
  • How long the marriage lasted
  • The age of each spouse
  • The mental and physical condition of each spouse
  • The contributions each spouse made to the family
  • Each spouse’s earning capacity

How did spousal support change in 2019?

Another factor the court may consider when determining the amount of spousal support is the potential tax consequences spousal support could have for each spouse. This may be an important consideration after a change went into effect January 2019 affecting the way spousal support is taxed.

Under the old law, the person who paid spousal support was able to deduct the payment and the spouse who received the payment payed the income tax on that money. Because the person receiving the payment is in a lower tax bracket, less taxes are paid on that income than the other spouse would have paid.

However, under the new tax law, the wealthier spouse must pay income taxes on the spousal support payments, and the lower-wage-earning spouse does not need to pay income tax on the payments. Because the wealthier spouse is taxed in a higher tax bracket, more taxes are paid overall, which could affect the amount of spousal support courts award.

The need to pay spousal support and the ability to receive spousal support is not a guaranteed component of any divorce. Even when spousal support is considered by a court, it can be difficult to predict the amount or duration of payments because courts consider many factors when determining what an award should be.

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