Be smart about your divorce. Don’t buy into these alimony myths!
When divorcing, one of the most contentious topics to settle is alimony, also commonly known as spousal support. Spousal support is intended for the recipient to maintain the ability to provide for themselves after the divorce is final. I have spent years researching alimony laws across the United States – interviewing dozens of lawyers, coaches, judges, mediators, and have come to see that there are an ample number of myths about the topic. I have seen way too much unnecessary litigation over this issue, and hope that I can clear up some of the top alimony myths that surface time and time again. Here we go…
1. Alimony is an entitlement.
This is the most common misconception I come across. Alimony is something a judge must grant to the recipient. Although you maybe did not notice when in front of a judge, your attorney will ask the judge for spousal support under certain statues and codes. Because this sounds like legal mumbo-jumbo, it goes right over the heads of all the non-lawyers as we do not speak legalese. A judge can deny spousal support or even delay it as they deem fit. Regardless of the length of the marriage and the money involved, judges do not have to grant alimony. Gulp.
2. Alimony is on-going, long-lasting or permanent.
It is no longer the 1950’s or 1960’s. In the overwhelming majority of cases, alimony is temporary in nature and is not meant to be permanent (even if the word “permanent” could be in the wording). The reason alimony has changed to being called spousal support is because it is meant to do just that – support. Alimony is not intended to be lived off of but to help the spouse provide for their own means in addition to what they can do for themselves. Even “permanent” alimony is intended to decrease over time and end in most states. The only reason it says “permanent” is due to the length of the marriage and therefore an end date is not set (verses “temporary” or “rehabilitative” alimony that has a specific end date). Nothing is permanent in the eyes of the law and everything is amendable by the courts. Finding this out did not give me a warm fuzzy, and it shouldn’t for you either.
3. Alimony will keep me at the standard of living of my marriage.
When the law says “standard of living”, they are usually inferring something different than what the recipient wants to hear. Courts are thinking along the lines of basic needs: some sort of housing, food in the pantry, health insurance, maybe some gas in the car. The courts are not thinking along the lines of: vacations, visits to the nail salon, organic foods, gym memberships, eating out and other extras. This is the most emotional frustration I see with those seeking spousal support, and I think it is because each person has their own concept of what the term “standard of living” means. The problem is that the courts are cannot truly determine a standard of living for any marriage. Think about it…the economy goes up and down, and so do earnings during a marriage. Because of this, to hope that a judge will only look at peak earnings and make a decision based on that amount is just that- a hope.
4. If my spouse abused me/ cheated/ is at fault/ is generally a bad person then I will get more alimony because of their bad behavior.
All states as of 2012 became no-fault. Simply put, this means that the courts really do not care if your spouse cheated, was actually gay, was an awful person or even in some cases, abused you. While most courts will allow the divorcing couple to enter the court room at separate times if there was documented physical abuse (such as police reports, not hearsay), this has little effect on spousal support payments. Courts overwhelmingly do not use alimony as punishment like they used to in decades past. In today’s courts alimony is an equitable solution, not a punishment.
5. A judge will give me a better deal than going to mediation.
Judges do not give better deals than two people working reasonably together in mediation. Mediators know what a fair number is for child and spousal support – but this is exactly where the problems come in. Because the number is generally much lower than the recipient thinks they should get, mediation can quickly become a failure and both parties walk away. But if brought before a judge, time and time again I see that the amount of support payments is similar or in many cases, lower, than the numbers that were given in mediation. But now, you owe an attorney substantial fees for litigating in court for you.
6. Alimony is free money for me to use with no strings attached.
That would be great, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, there are a few core problems with this myth. The biggest one is that alimony is taxable to the recipient and tax-deductible for the payor. As the laws of alimony changed, the state governments began to see the window to tax spousal support, and they ran with it. Alimony is unequivocally seen as income and is taxed (I have yet to see any exception to this). The next core issue is the idea that there are no expectations of the alimony recipient. Many courts will lower or eliminate spousal support if the recipient is not working or doing what they see as taking advantage of the system. The courts expect that you are using this money to help transition yourself, not live off of it. As a judge once told me, “I always make sure that the person getting alimony is maximizing what they can earn before reaching into the pocket of someone else”.
As you can see, spousal support laws have come a long way in the last several years. This is important to understand if you are facing divorce for many reasons. First, your attorney will most likely not tell you these things because it could upset you and then they will lose your business (they are doing this job to make money, remember?). Second, many people consult family members and friends who divorced years ago as their main source of information on what to expect. This is a problem because alimony laws have changed consistently since your mother’s, aunt’s and old neighbor’s divorce. You cannot look at other divorces and expect yours to be the same. Third and most importantly, it is vital for you to understand the reality of the situation before you so that you can make the best decision for your future. As once a recipient of alimony myself, I can attest that the law is not fair on this matter. However, one of the best things I did was to get unbiased information to build my future with. I hope this article can help you in the path to your new life.
Kate Kennedy is an avid reader, researcher and teacher. She enjoys one too many coffee cups daily, and thoroughly revels in her title as “Aunt”. She is working on a research book tentatively titled “The Great Alimony Myth” as well as a fiction novel. She lives in America’s Finest City, San Diego, California.Share This!