Alimony: What It Is and How It Works

woman taking off wedding ring

Karl Tapales / Getty Images

If you are in the middle of a separation or divorce you might be thinking a lot about alimony. The idea behind alimony is simple. If one partner was relying on the income of their spouse (maybe they stayed home with the kids while the other person worked), they need a means of financial support after the relationship disintegrates. But the logistics can be difficult and hard to navigate.

What Is Alimony?

Alimony is court-ordered financial support that a person is ordered to give a former spouse following a separation or divorce.

For help, we turned to Alexandra Geczi, a divorce attorney who specializes in family law in Dallas, Texas. She talked us through the types of alimony, how someone gets it, and why it might be something worth seeking. Any type of separation or divorce is a challenging time, and her advice is aimed to make the procedure that much smoother.

Meet the Expert

Alexandra Geczi is a family and divorce lawyer in Texas who helps women create a life they love.

Types of Alimony

Alimony differs by state, but in general there are two types of alimony.

Spousal Maintenance

Spousal maintenance is the most common form of alimony and what people normally think of when they hear the word. It's when one party in a marriage provides financial support to a former spouse if he or she isn't financially independent. In general, the longer you've been married and the greater the difference in income, the larger the alimony payments will be.

"With a couple of exceptions like domestic violence, the general rule is that to qualify a couple must be married for at least 10 years, and the spouse requesting spousal maintenance must demonstrate a need for financial support and a source of income to pull it from," explains Geczi.

With spousal maintenance, the courts and legal code decide how much money someone should get. "There is a common misconception that being married for 10 years automatically entitles you to spousal maintenance. However, that’s not true," says Geczi. "In fact, spousal maintenance can be challenging to get. The courts expect people to become self-sufficient and independent and not continue to rely on the other spouse after a divorce. This can be a huge blow to someone who was relying on alimony during and after divorce."

Contractual Alimony

Rather than being court-ordered, contractual alimony is when the two parties come to an agreement out of court (most likely in mediation) about how much one party will pay the other. Sometimes this is a one-time fee or a short-term agreement to get both parties settled after divorce. Other times it can be a lump sum every month. "Contractual alimony is negotiated and does not follow the same rules as statutory spousal maintenance," shares Geczi. "If one party has the right leverage, they can negotiate contractual alimony under whatever terms that can get the other person to agree to."

How to Get Alimony and How It Works

Alimony is negotiated during divorce proceedings. Many divorce cases settle out of court, and in those instances, the parties (and their lawyers) draw up the terms. "A good lawyer will be able to educate their client and work with the other attorney to come up with a solution that both parties are comfortable with, or at least tolerate, without the need to go to court," says Geczi.

In cases that go to court, the judge decides what the alimony should be. The court will look at the unique situation of this couple (their incomes, how long they have been together, the assets each party holds) and decide who deserves what payment. "If you are the spouse that stayed home to support the marriage and family, you may be entitled to more than 50 percent of the property and assets," reveals Geczi.

The parties or the court decides how alimony is paid. "Some people like a few lump sums annually. Others like to break it up, so a little bit is withheld from each payment," she explains. "Most people pay directly to the other person, but there may be times when we set up an account through the state and it goes through the state like child support."

There are also procedures to follow if one spouse doesn't pay what he or she owes the other. "If the paying spouse fails to pay as set out in the decree or court order, then the person owed the money can sue them to enforce the payments that were missed," she adds.

Alternatives to Alimony

Geczi says there can be downfalls to relying on your former spouse to financially support you. "If your ex misses a payment, you can’t enforce for future payments and get it all. You can only sue to enforce the payments that have been missed, which means that you may have to wait a long time. They may be 10 days late, 30 days late, whatever, and you can’t really do much about it. In the meantime, you’ll be angry and struggling if you have your own bills to pay that rely on these payments."

She works hard with her clients to find ways for them to be financially independent. Even before a client gets divorced she encourages them to do divorce planning. "We use divorce planning strategically to help our clients transition more smoothly," she shares. "With pre-divorce planning, you can set financial goals, educate yourself about your options, work with a team that supports you, and then make informed decisions in your divorce that will empower you and bring you financial security."

Related Stories