What Is Maintenance (Alimony)?

This article defines the term "maintenance" (often referred to as "alimony").
Table of contents

What Is Maintenance (Alimony)?

Whatever your situation, you must first understand the maintenance basics—what maintenance (or alimony) is exactly, when it is appropriate, and how the general rules applying to maintenance will determine what happens to you.

In a nutshell, maintenance is financial support that one spouse provides to the other in the event of divorce or legal separation. Maintenance is determined, in large mea-sure, by the laws of the state where you live. Some basic rules, however, are virtually universal:

Divorce Dictionary

Maintenance, or alimony, refers to payments made by one spouse to the other to assist with the support of the recipient spouse. Payments usually terminate upon the death of either spouse or a date decided by a judge or agreed upon by the husband and wife. They may also terminate upon remarriage or cohabitation of the supported spouse. Payments received are usually taxable for the recipient spouse and tax-deductible for the paying spouse.

  • A wife can pay her husband alimony and vice versa. Gone are the days when only husbands paid wives support.
  • In many instances, these payments are time-limited, but in longer-term marriages, they can continue for life.
  • Although you can negotiate otherwise, the payments are usually tax-deductible to the person who pays them and considered taxable income by the recipient. Stated another way, what you receive might be reduced by virtue of taxes, whereas your payments might cost you less when the tax deduction is figured in. Have a tax professional or lawyer explain the requirements of the Internal Revenue Code's section 71.

Safety Net for the Homemaker

It's understandable that maintenance can be a key cause of resentment following divorce, especially when it must be paid for years. Except for the very wealthy, helping to support not just one household, but two, is an extraordinary burden. For the one receiving the payments, meanwhile, the reality of a restricted lifestyle and dependency on an ex-spouse can be onerous, indeed.

Take the case of Patty and John. When they married, both were teachers. Three years later, when Vivian was born, Patty stopped working. Patty and John decided she would go back to work in four years, but then, they had two more children, and four years became eight years. When all three children were finally in school, Patty no longer wanted to go back to work. During the school year, John took some coaching positions to make ends meet while Patty took care of the kids. In the summer, John did construction work while Patty took the kids to the beach. John resented Patty's refusal to work, but went along with it.

Now, Patty and John are getting divorced. Patty would like to work, but there are no jobs in her immediate area. Besides, she hasn't taught in more than eight years. She needs to take some refresher courses. John is panicking. He could barely pay the bills when he was supporting one household. Now, he'll have to support two. It just doesn't seem fair that he's done all the work, and now he'll have to do even more.

Patty is upset, meanwhile, because the family cannot afford to keep the house. Of course, if she had known they were going to divorce, she would have kept working. She's angry about the position she's in.

Could this nightmare happen to you? Remember, just because you are divorcing does not mean you can ignore decisions you and your spouse made about how you wanted to live your married life. You might be able to eventually alter the course of those decisions, but in the beginning of a divorce, they are the realities you have to live with.

Rules of Thumb

The basic rule is simple. The breadwinner spouse pays, and the nonbreadwinner cashes the checks. If you both worked or both have the ability to work and can easily get jobs, the chances are good that neither of you have to pay the other. If one spouse earns vastly more than the other, a certain amount of maintenance may be required as well.

In one case we've followed, a couple—a teacher and a police detective—were divorcing. Their salaries and benefits were comparable, and neither had to pay spousal support to the other.

Child support, which we cover in the next chapter, is a different matter. The teacher-husband had custody of the parties' two children, and he was entitled to support from his wife, the detective, who earned somewhat more. Most states have a system where-by child support is determined by guidelines based on a percentage of the parents' income and the number of children, the children's needs, or a combination of the two. Check with your lawyer or your state's website.