AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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Payment that a family court may order one person in a couple to make to the other person when that couple separates or divorces.

The purpose of alimony is to avoid any unfair economic consequences of a DIVORCE, even after property is divided and CHILD SUPPORT, if any, is awarded. Courts set few specific guidelines to attaining this broad goal: instead of telling judges how and when to award alimony, most courts simply grant them broad discretion to decide what is fair in each case.

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For example, suppose two individuals who married in 1985 agree in 1995 to divorce. At the time of the divorce, the husband earns $63,000 a year, after seven years at a large company where the top pay for his specialty is $80,000. When the couple married, he was in graduate school and the wife was earning $22,000. The wife worked for three more years, supporting the husband while he completed his coursework and graduated.

When their first child was born, they agreed that the wife would care for the child at home. At the time of divorce, the wife had been working full-time for one year since the couple's children, ages seven and six, had entered school. She was earning $23,000 a year and would have custody of the children.

A judge in this case would certainly award child support and would probably divide marital property equally between the couple. But it might not seem fair to the judge to allow the husband to leave the marriage with the sole possession of the couple's most valuable asset?his earning potential?when the wife contributed to his education by supporting him.

Unlike the family's home or station wagon, the husband's earning power has not yet reached its full value, but it promises to grow. It seems especially unfair for the wife not to receive a share of it since after helping the husband attain his education she agreed to forfeit her earning power to invest time in the family. The several years she spent out of the workforce continue to handicap her earnings. Alimony is the only means available to the court to avoid a potentially unjust division of assets.

The judge in this case may award alimony or may award a token amount?such as $1 a year?so that the wife has the option to request an increase later on (modifying an award is easier than winning one after the divorce). Or the judge may award no alimony; judges are not required to award alimony.

The HUSBAND AND WIFE in this example are unlikely to find a single solution they both consider equitable. In trying to reach an order that is fair, judges must balance spouses' contributions and sacrifices during the marriage with their needs after the divorce. Although the result may not match both spouses' ideas of what is fair, one of alimony's biggest virtues is its flexibility: it can always be changed.

Alimony can be modified or eliminated as the former spouses' needs change, if those needs are the result of decisions they made as a married unit. Awards and increases in alimony are meant to address only needs that are caused by the divorce itself, not unrelated needs. If the wife's elderly mother becomes ill and dependent on her after the divorce, for example, the wife's need increases, but the increase is unrelated to the divorce and will not increase her eligibility...

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