“Alimony is like buying hay for a dead horse.”
That is classic Groucho, and it may give you a chuckle but the chuckle will end when you find out how many factors the court looks at in determining whether or not an award of alimony, or as it is now referred to, spousal support, is appropriate. The number is 19; 19 factors that a court uses to determine whether spousal support is warranted. Even though we are in mediation rather than going to court, mediation operates in the shadow of the law, so we look at factors a court would consider as a basis for decision making about alimony/spousal support.
The purpose of spousal support is to get the non-working spouse back in the work force so they can be self-supporting but what does that mean? How long and how much will it take? How much economic assistance will the non-monied spouse need to obtain re-education and update their skill level after being absent from the work force for a long time. That’s very simplistic and not really the whole story.
Some of the 19 factors the court looks at are:
- The length of the marriage.
- The substantial differences in incomes or the disparity of incomes.
- The standard of living the parties had during the marriage.
- The age and health of the parties.
- Present and future earning capacity.
In looking at these 5, the one that really stands out is “the standard of living established during the marriage”. A judge would look at what your lifestyle was before divorce, and would expect you to maintain your spouse and/or children in that same lifestyle. When I explain that to couples, usually the one that has to pay can be identified by falling off their chair or the very sick look on their face thinking, “I’m going to be living in a refrigerator box under the elevated train and that is really not what I had envisioned for myself after working for 20 years.”
I am often asked about the “3 to 1 rule” which is awarding alimony based on a calculation of 1 year of alimony for every three years of marriage. While there may be a judge out there somewhere who uses it, there really is no such rule. Does that mean the calculation is completely absurd? No, so what I’d like to do is provide a “ballpark estimate” of the length of spousal support. This, of course, is just my opinion based on the number of couples I see and my daily conversations with divorce lawyers about their cases.
- In a ten year marriage you might pay 3-5 years of alimony.
- In a 15 year marriage, 5-8 years of alimony.
- In a 20 year marriage, 8-10 years of alimony.
- In a 20+ year marriage, depending on the age of the spouse receiving maintenance, they might get the spousal support/maintenance until they collect Social security at their retirement age of 66-67. That is when Social Security will take over and they will begin to receive their full monthly benefit.
These numbers can vary a lot, in particular one variable factor that can effect spousal support is equitable distribution. A marriage with a lot of assets such as the house, stocks, brokerage accounts, cash, and retirement funds, will provide each spouse with a substantial distribution of assets of the marriage and may reduce the amount of spousal maintenance. At the very least, this distribution of assets would be considered by a judge.
I know this makes a lot of people unhappy, but this is reality. How we arrive at a settlement on spousal maintenance as well as the distribution of other assets is part of what the mediation process will accomplish. These are not easy conversations to have, but it is a disservice to you and your spouse not to have the conversation because if we don’t do it in mediation, you are going to end up with attorneys arguing about spousal maintenance. I’d rather have the conversation with you and frankly explain the reality of what happens regarding spousal support in a divorce which will ultimately be better for you and your spouse. You both can walk away knowing that you will have enough money to support the kids and take care of yourselves.
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