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What Are the Eligibility Requirements for Spousal Support or Alimony?

Every state has different requirements for spousal support: who can get it, under what circumstances they can get it, and how long the marriage must have lasted to get it.

However, one thing that all states have in common is that one spouse must show a need for spousal support and their ex-spouse’s ability to pay it. If you can prove this, you may be able to get at least temporary alimony in your divorce.

Types of spousal support

Spousal support comes in several forms. Most people think of it as one spouse paying the other a monthly stipend forever; that’s permanent spousal support. There are actually four other general types as well: temporary, rehabilitative, reimbursement, and lump-sum financial support.

Temporary spousal support

Also called alimony pendente lite (Latin for “pending the suit”), temporary alimony may be awarded during the divorce proceedings to ensure equal legal representation.

Rehabilitative spousal support

Used for a short period of time after divorce, rehabilitative spousal support is provided to one spouse while they continue their education or job training to become fully self-supporting.

Reimbursement spousal support

Reimbursement support is an amount given to one spouse for expenses incurred during the marriage, like education.

Lump-sum spousal support

Lump-sum spousal support is the rarest type, as it’s provided in a single payment, which can have positive tax consequences for the payor.

There’s a recent trend of judges awarding less alimony and imposing stricter requirements for alimony. If you’re considering a request for support in your divorce, organize your affairs, and be sure you meet the requirements for your state. 

Factors a court considers when awarding spousal support

Although every state has different requirements for granting spousal support, some factors transcend state lines:

  • The recipient’s financial resources
  • The recipient’s earning potential
  • The paying spouse’s financial resources
  • The paying spouse’s earning potential
  • The recipient’s need to continue education or job training
  • The length of the marriage
  • The standard of living established during the marriage
  • The age, physical, and emotional condition of both spouses
  • Non-paid contributions to the marriage
  • Any other relevant financial information
  • Tax consequences of alimony payments
  • What either spouse has given up during the marriage
  • Any other factors a judge reasonably considers relevant

Note that marital fault is not usually considered by a judge when awarding financial support. While fault could be alleged as a reason for the divorce, a judge looks at more objective financial factors when awarding a support order.

Spousal support example

Let’s say you and your spouse have been married for 22 years. You both agree the marriage is irretrievably broken, and divorce is the right next step. Five years into your marriage, your first child was born, and you stopped working. 

The court will look at what you gave up to support your marriage. They’ll see that you quit your career – and sacrificed your earning capacity – to support your marriage and raise your children. While you weren’t paid for that, they will consider it a financial contribution to the marriage. 

The court will also consider your spouse’s earning potential. If your spouse regularly received promotions and raises during your marriage, that fact could increase your payments. And because the marriage lasted 22 years, you could very well be eligible for permanent alimony. (See the FAQ for more information about permanent alimony.)

Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements

There’s one other factor we haven’t touched on yet that the court will consider, and that’s whether you signed a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement. In either agreement, you may have waived your right to spousal support. If you did, the court would not be able to award you spousal support unless you could prove you signed the agreement under duress or false pretenses.

FAQ about spousal support

Lots of questions arise during divorce, many of which focus on spousal support. Here are some of the most common questions.

How long can spousal support last?

It depends on the type of support you’re awarded. If you’re awarded permanent support, the only way it ends is if of you die, remarry, or your former spouse no longer has the financial resources to pay you.

You’re more likely to have a time or situation constraint placed on your receipt of spousal support. For example, you might be awarded rehabilitative alimony so you can finish your degree before returning to work. In that case, a judge might give you two years of support or note that, once you obtain your degree, the support will stop. (In either situation, you must keep the court updated on your educational progress.)

Can my spouse and I decide on alimony ourselves?

Absolutely. This is often the preferred way to go about alimony because it keeps control in your hands. However, if you and your spouse cannot agree on the issue, you’ll have to let a judge decide for you.

Spouses are free to agree on alimony terms, including the amount and duration. As long as a judge doesn’t see any glaring problems with your agreement, they’ll sign off on it. 

What if my former spouse refuses to pay spousal support?

If your former spouse was ordered to pay support and fails to do so, you can ask the court to enforce the order. Regardless of the type of payment ordered, you’d need to file a petition with the court and prove your spouse has not paid.

The court then has a few options. They could call your spouse into court, where a judge would ask them to explain the lack of payment. The judge could demand payment in good faith on the spot, or they could garnish your spouse’s wages to ensure payments are made. The latter option is generally reserved for spouses who violate the court’s order more than once.

What if neither of us earns much money?

If neither you nor your spouse earn much money, it’s unlikely that you’d be awarded spousal support. Remember: One of the core factors of a support ruling is your spouse’s ability to pay. If they can’t pay, it’s unlikely that a judge would require them to pay.

Can I ask for spousal support after the divorce is over?

Once your divorce decree has been finalized, it is very difficult to go back to the judge and ask for a reconsideration. In this case, you would probably need the advice of an attorney.

This is why it’s vital for you to consider your legal options during divorce proceedings. If you need support money, even temporarily, you must make that request during the divorce proceedings. Waiting too long could mean missing your chance to collect support payments.

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