When married, the parties make various life decisions jointly through discussions, actions, or conduct. When the marriage ends, the income-earning spouse, who no longer enjoys the relationship benefits of marriage, is expected to continue to benefit the former spouse and pay for the other spouse’s financial support. Certainly, this feels very unfair. However, the parties likely made personal and professional decisions that placed one spouse at an income-earning disadvantage at the time of the divorce. While one spouse may not have their name in lights and be celebrated professionally, the longer the marriage, the more likely the professional achievements would not have been possible without contributions of the other spouse. To balance the scales of justice and mitigate the inequities, alimony is available under the law.
The foregoing being said the requesting spouse is expected to financially contribute to their own financial support unless it is impracticable or impossible for some legitimate reason. If a requesting spouse is voluntarily under or unemployed, an income will be imputed to them. When deciding whether to award alimony and, if so, how much, the law looks at the length of the marriage: short term marriage (less than 7 years), a moderate-term marriage (more than 7 and less than 17 years) and a long-term marriage (more than 17 years) and presumes there are increasing reliances, contributions, and sacrifices made by the spouses the longer the marriage to warrant an award of alimony.
Regardless of the length of the marriage, however, in order to receive alimony, the requesting spouse has to prove two things: they have a need for financial support, and, the other spouse has the ability to pay support. Both a need and a corresponding ability to pay must be present.
Need is not the same as Want. Need refers to actual living expenses: a functional home, a vehicle, food, health care etc. Need also refers to reasonable living expenses: expenses associated with things and activities enjoyed by the parties during the marriage. If the parties took a vacation every year, that expense may be a reasonable expense for both to continue to enjoy. However, two vacations a year would not be reasonable. If the parties typically purchased used modest cars, a new luxury car may not be a reasonable expense.
Ability to pay refers to the paying spouse’s ability to meet his/her own financial needs and those of the other spouse. The primary income earner does not have to go into debt or sacrifice his/her own needs to financially fulfill those of the other spouse. However, where the lines blur is where NEED meets ABILITY to pay. An income that used to support one 3500 sq.ft. home may not be sufficient to support 2 – 3500 sq.ft. homes. This is particularly true where, as many Americans, the one income was not actually sufficient to support the lifestyle as evidenced by the accumulation of debt.
As such, the intention behind the statutory framework is not to punish the income-earning spouse or provide a windfall to the recipient. As previously mentioned, it is intended to balance the equities on a case by case basis. Accordingly, to whatever extent the recipient can financially support himself/herself or become self-supporting, the law requires them to do so.