How Does the Court Determine an Award of Alimony?
Alimony, also called spousal support or maintenance, is one of the more difficult issues to tackle during the divorce process. With the exception of child custody and child support, no other issue is as personal or emotionally charged to divorce litigants.
Alimony is based on the premise that during a marriage, both spouses have an absolute obligation to support each other financially during the marriage and alimony is a continuation of this obligation after separation or divorce. Accordingly, an alimony award is a vehicle for the Court to equalize the income stream of the parties after divorce for a determined period of time.
It is difficult to predict exactly how much spousal maintenance the court will award a particular party. Maryland law states that judges are to consider a host of factors but the ultimate decision on how much alimony is awarded and for how long rests with the judge. There is no court-mandated formula that a judge must follow (as there is in child support law) so alimony is decided on a case-by-case basis. There are a few computer programs that attempt to discern the appropriate amount of alimony and these alimony calculations are admissible in evidence; however the Judge is not compelled to consider the calculation and the Judge still has the discretion to make the decision.
Once dissolution proceedings commence, either party may seek interim or pendente lite support during the course of the litigation or either party may ask for alimony at the final divorce hearing. In Maryland there are eleven enumerated factors that a judge must consider in determining alimony. The court will examine the standard of living established during the marriage. Based upon that standard, it will take into account the anticipated ongoing (reasonable) monthly expenses of each spouse. The court will compare the expenses against the income of each litigant. If a litigant faces a monthly shortfall, the party will have a need for spousal support. If a litigant faces a monthly windfall, they will have the ability to pay spousal maintenance. These elements are measured against the length of the parties’ marriage, the age of the parties, the circumstances that led to the estrangement of the parties, any agreements between the parties, the educational background and training of the parties, and the mental and physical health of the parties.
After all of the elements are considered, the court will determine whether an award is justified, how much the monthly award should be, and the length of time the paying party will be obligated to pay alimony to their former spouse. Most courts award rehabilitative alimony which is temporary alimony that lasts just long enough for the party receiving alimony has an opportunity to reeducate themselves, reestablish their career path, and/or become self-supporting. In some cases, a court may order permanent alimony. This would be justified in cases where due to age, illness, infirmity, or disability the party seeking alimony cannot reasonably be expected to make substantial progress toward becoming self supporting. Another instances where permanent alimony could be granted is when a party seeking alimony has made as much progress as reasonably expected to become self-supporting and the standards of living between the parties are still unconscionably disparate or different.
If permanent alimony is granted, then the amount can be modified at any future date based on a change of circumstances by either party on proper notice to the other party and application to the court. The vast majority of alimony awards are rehabilitative alimony awards that are shorter in duration with a definite end date. This type of alimony is non-modifiable regardless of any change in income or expenses. In any event, it is always better to negotiate alimony amount and duration so that both sides can budget and plan. Likewise, an agreement takes the decision out of a Judge’s control and saves both sides money on attorney’s fees.