Some things in life are pretty much inescapable. Death and taxes are certain, and under some circumstances, alimony is, too. This doesn’t mean that courts will order it in every divorce, or that you’ll be stuck paying it for the rest of your life. But if the circumstances of your marriage and divorce fall within certain parameters, you probably won’t be able to avoid paying alimony.
A judge will determine how much alimony you will have to pay for your soon-to-be-ex based on a number of factors, including the length of the marriage, the standard of living during the marriage and what each person can pay depending on earnings. To avoid this, you and your spouse may also agree to a spousal support amount and get it in writing for a judge to sign as an order.
You Earn Less Than Your Spouse
Courts typically base alimony awards on two important, interconnecting factors – the income of the spouse asking for it and the income of the spouse who will pay it. So even if your spouse desperately needs alimony, the judge may not order it if you earn less or about the same as she does. Some exceptions exist, however, such as if she’s disabled and can’t possibly support herself, especially if you were married for a considerable time. Also keep in mind that the judge will look at other factors, including the standard of living during the marriage, the length of the marriage and each spouse's earning capacity, in determining whether any, and if so what amount, alimony should be paid.
Your Marriage Was Short
If you were married for 20 years or more and you were always the primary wage earner, an order for alimony is probably inevitable. But if you were married for only a short time, the judge may not require that you to help support your ex. After short marriages, judges tend to try to restore spouses to the same financial condition they had before they tied the knot.
For example, if your spouse earned $25,000 a year when you got married three years earlier, the court isn’t likely to order you to pay her alimony to increase her income above this amount. It wouldn’t be right or fair for her to be more financially comfortable simply because she married you for a short time. Some states award alimony for just a limited period of time after a short marriage, allowing a spouse time to acquire job skills or an education so she can better support herself, but usually only if the other spouse’s income is well in excess of hers.
Ask for a Vocational Evaluation
It may be possible to minimize alimony payments or, in some cases, avoid them entirely if you prove that your spouse’s need for support doesn’t actually exist. You can petition the court as part of your divorce proceedings, asking the judge to order a vocational evaluation.
Your spouse would have to meet with a vocational expert who would assess her ability to work, her job skills and the market available for her particular abilities. For example, she might have an advanced degree that she’s not using, preferring to work part time at a minimum wage job. You shouldn’t have to pay because of this – and the vocational expert’s report to the court would point out what she could earn if she used her degree, along with potential positions that are available in your area. At worst, you might have to pay her alimony for a limited period of time until she finds an appropriate job.
Seek to Modify or Terminate Alimony
When it comes to divorce law and alimony, “permanent” is a misleading term. Permanent alimony usually only means that your divorce decree doesn’t include a definitive cut-off date for the obligation. But this doesn’t mean it won’t ever end. If your spouse remarries, alimony automatically stops. In some states, if she begins living with a partner in a marriage-like relationship, this also terminates your obligation. A drop in your income can reduce alimony payments, but you’d have to petition the court to bring this to the attention of a judge who could modify the amount of alimony you have to pay.
An exception exists if your income drops because of some voluntary action on your part. For example, if you choose to retire early, the court might see this as an effort to dodge support payments. But if you retire at age 65 or later, this is reasonable and the court might reduce your payments accordingly.
Agree Without a Judge
Sometimes spouses separate with some level of understanding. If you have this with your spouse, try to come to an agreement with him without involving the judge at first. If you and your spouse get the alimony agreement in writing and sign it, you can submit it to the judge. Once signed by the judge, it will become the court order. The agreement, usually called a stipulation, can specify that no alimony be paid.