When couples separate, alimony may be an issue that needs to be determined. Alimony is awarded after a divorce is finalized.
Whether you are a payor or a payee, you should understand how alimony works in Pennsylvania to know your rights, obligations, and how alimony is awarded.
Alimony vs. Spousal Support
In a marriage, it's common for one spouse to earn more than the other. One partner may have been a stay-at-home parent, and they supported the other spouse while they worked outside of the home building financial wealth and income from employment. Or perhaps even if both spouses worked during the marriage, one spouse took a lower paying career path because of the higher income available to both spouses during the marriage.
In any event, support of the lower earning spouse is often granted during a divorce proceeding and sometimes even after a divorce is final.
What Is Spousal Support?
Spousal support payments are payments to one spouse by the other before a divorce decree is granted, but after a separation occurs but when no divorce complaint has been filed. Alimony pendente lite (APL) is support paid to a spouse after separation when a divorce complaint has been filed. However, many people use the terms interchangeably.
These pre-divorce payments allow a lower-earning spouse to support their lives and cover bills while separated from their partner and possibly pursuing a divorce. Spousal support/APL ends when the divorce is granted, but payments can continue after the divorce as alimony.
What Is Alimony?
Alimony payments are payments received by one spouse from the other after the divorce is finalized. This post-divorce support aims to help the lower-earning or non-earning spouse maintain their standard of living or to help the lower earning spouse obtain/reobtain certificates, education, or licensing that could help them better provide for themselves once the alimony term ends.
What is Alimony's Purpose?
The primary purpose of alimony is to support a lower-earning spouse whose needs they cannot cover alone. That person may have helped or cared for the higher-earning spouse and relied on them to maintain their living standards during the relationship.
Some people may hesitate to initiate a divorce, fearing that they may not be able to support themselves financially during the divorce or once a final decree is entered. Alimony and spousal support/APL are meant to help lower-earning spouses transition out of their marriage financially, if they choose to end their relationship.
How is Alimony Determined in PA?
Under Pennsylvania alimony law (Title 23 Pa.C.S.A. §3781), the court considers 17 factors when establishing whether alimony is appropriate, how much should be awarded, and the duration of payments. However, local practice and procedure may follow the guideline formula for spousal support/APL. It is important that your divorce attorney knows and understands what the court would do in your specific county.
- Earnings and earning capacities of both parties
- Ages, physical, mental, and emotional conditions of both parties
- Sources of income of both parties (including medical, retirement, insurance, and other benefits)
- Expectancies and inheritances of both parties
- The duration of the marriage
- Contribution by one party to the education, training, or increased earning power of the other party
- The extent to which the earning power, expenses, or financial obligations of a party will be impacted by child custody
- The standard of living of the parties during the marriage
- The relative education of both parties and training necessary for the party seeking alimony to obtain appropriate employment
- Relative assets and liability of both parties
- Property brought to the marriage by both parties
- Contribution of either party as a homemaker
- Relative needs of both parties
- Marital misconduct (including abuse) by either of the parties during the marriage
- Federal, state, and local tax ramifications of the potential alimony
- Lack of sufficient property by the party seeking alimony
- Whether the party seeking alimony is incapable of self-support through employment
How Long Does Alimony Last?
Alimony may be awarded for a definite or indefinite period. A court will generally award alimony for a time that it deems necessary for the lower-earning spouse to begin supporting themselves. Some local counties rely on a formula for how long they will typically award alimony (often talked about as the 1 for 3 rule: one year of support for every three years of marriage). However, this is only a guide and is not mandated by Pennsylvania law.
This may be limited to a length of time or conditional upon the receiver obtaining the necessary training to secure appropriate employment.
Under Pennsylvania law, alimony usually ends sooner than any agreed upon or court order term, upon remarriage of the party receiving alimony, death of either party, or the receiving party moves in with a third party and lives as if they are married in cohabitation.
When Can You Modify Alimony?
Alimony can only be modified if there is a substantial change of circumstances, unless your agreement or the final court order classified the alimony as non-modifiable. Those changes must be continuous and expected to remain for an indefinite length of time.
If this is the case, a court may order alimony to be modified, suspended, terminated, or reinstituted if it was previously suspended. The order only applies to payments in the future, not made in the past.
How is Alimony Paid?
Spouses generally have options for how they receive alimony. They may opt to receive a lump-sum payment (or multiple larger payments) or periodic payments (usually monthly).
When spouses agree to periodic payments, the court will often order the payor to make payments through the Pennsylvania domestic relations office and statewide collection system, unless the parties agree that the payor can make payments directly to the payee.
Whether you think you will have an alimony obligation or you think you should be receiving alimony, you should work with an alimony lawyer who can guide you through a divorce case.
Call an Alimony Attorney Today for Help With Your Case
Whether you are seeking alimony, or someone has filed to obtain payments from you, an attorney can help you navigate the legal system. You have rights on both sides of the situation. It's best to achieve an outcome that works for all parties.
Attorney Susan Gibson with Gibson Family Law, PLLC, is prepared to hear your case and help you reach a solution. She's been exclusively practicing family law in Bucks County for nearly 15 years.