Welcome back to the blog! Today, I’m going to talk about about alimony, one of the three most frequently discussed topics in all of family law. If you are curious about the other two, child support and timesharing, click the links to check out my earlier blog posts.
Alimony in Florida is a complex topic and incredibly subjective. Whether or not you have to pay, could receive, how much you may owe and for how long depends on many different factors. Because of the complexity, and because I doubt you want to read a 10,000 word lecture, I’m going to focus on the four major factors that usually determine whether alimony will be an issue in your case.
Duration of the Marriage:
The length of your marriage makes a huge difference in whether alimony will even come up in your divorce case. Before going any further, I must point out that alimony is only available in Florida in a divorce. You cannot get alimony if a paternity case or after the break-up of a long-term relationship. Back to marriage, Florida recognizes three types of marriages: short-term (less than 7 years), a moderate term marriage (between 7 and 17 years) and a long-term marriage (17 or more years). Generally speaking, the longer you were married, the longer you may receive (or be required to pay) alimony.
Short Term Marriage:
If you were married less than 7 years, alimony may not be a significant factor in your divorce. In most cases, if either spouse is required to pay alimony, it is bridge-the-gap alimony, which is a form of alimony designed to allow one spouse to “bridge-the-gap” between married and single-life. The idea is that one spouse may have short term needs, such as time to reenter the workforce, restart a career that was placed on hold during the marriage, finish school, etc. Bridge-the-gap alimony is non-modifiable, meaning it cannot be changed, but it also cannot exceed 24 months. A related form of alimony, less common though often seen in short-term marriages, is rehabilitative alimony. This type of alimony is designed to allow one-spouse to meet a short-term, such as to finish school. The difference is that the court must define a specific plan that party must follow in order to receive alimony. It may also be modified, particularly if the rehabilitation plan is not followed. Other forms of alimony, including durational alimony and permanent alimony are possible in short-term marriages, but under extraordinary circumstances.
Moderate Term Marriage:
In a moderate term marriage, one that lasts between 7 and 17 years, the type of alimony usually ordered is durational. Durational alimony, at the risk of overstating the obvious, is a form of alimony that lasts for a set duration. It may not last more than the length of the marriage. So, if you were married for 10 years, you cannot get 12 years of durational alimony. Generally speaking, durational alimony in a moderate term marriage is ordered for no more than half of the length of the marriage (5 years of alimony for a 10-year marriage), but this is hardly a guarantee. It depends on the specific facts of your case.
Long Term Marriage
In a long-term marriage, there is a presumption that the party with a need for support will receive permanent alimony. Permanent alimony would terminate only upon the death of the party ordered to pay or the remarriage of the party ordered to receive it. Sounds like a pretty good deal, right? Unfortunately, permanent alimony has been falling out of favor and most judges won’t just order it, even after a long-term marriage, unless there are other compelling factors present. More likely, if alimony is ordered after a long-term marriage, it will be durational, although for a longer duration than ordered after a moderate-term marriage.
Need and ability to pay
Alimony will only be ordered if one party has a need and the other party has the ability to pay alimony. Need is generally defined as the amount of money the requesting spouse needs from the other spouse to pay their monthly bills. Ability to pay is defined by how much money the spouse against whom support is requested has left-over at the end of the money to pay alimony. If both spouses make equivalent, or even substantially similar, incomes the court will probably find that neither spouse has a need for alimony. Conversely, if one spouse makes significantly more money, then it is likely the court will find the other spouse has an ability to pay.
Keep in mind, these are not hard and fast rules. Even if one spouse makes significantly more money, if the requesting spouse still makes enough money to pay their monthly bills, buy food, groceries, etc. and still have money left over, the court may not order alimony. Along the same lines, if one spouse makes significantly more money, but has significantly more bills (for instance, if one spouse is responsible for paying off marital debts) then alimony may not be ordered. Finally, even if there is a disparity in income, alimony may not be ordered if the higher-earning spouse still does not make much money. For example, a court is more likely to find an ability to pay if a spouse makes $100,000.00 than one that makes $45,000.00.
Finally, just because one party has a need, does not mean the other party has the ability to meet that entire need. Often times the court will find the payor spouse only makes enough to partially cover the other’s need. Alternatively, just because one spouse has the ability to pay a significant amount of alimony, it does not mean the other spouse needs all of the excess. A smaller alimony award may be sufficient.
Standard of Living
I bring up standard of living as a significant factor more for what it does not mean than for what it does. Conventional wisdom is that if both parties lived a comfortable lifestyle while married, then the party entitled to alimony should be able to enjoy the same lifestyle. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. With the exception of the very wealthy, if you take one household and divide it into two, the living standard for both households decreases. The same amount of money does not go as far when it must pay for two mortgages, utility bills, daycare, etc., often with a higher tax liability. For those reasons, the court will expect both parties to tighten the belt. Furthermore, the court cannot order the party receiving alimony to retain more than 50% of the total marital income. In fact, most courts limit that party to 40-45% of the total marital income.
Standard of living comes into play when justifying the amounts of each party’s monthly bills. For example, a court may find a spouse that has routinely purchased designer clothing during the marriage may have a higher monthly clothing budget that one who shopped clearance. It may also justify one spouse purchasing or renting an expensive property which a higher mortgage or rent payment. However, as discussed above, one spouse’s need is only as good as the other’s ability to pay.
Judges are the alimony wild cards. Florida law provides judges with tremendous discretion in setting an alimony award. That means an alimony award may vary significantly from courtroom to courtroom. As the old adage goes, “a good lawyer knows the law, a great lawyer knows the judge.” Hiring a local attorney that knows the family law judges is the only way to know how your particular judge may rule on alimony.
Alimony differs from child support in that there is no set guideline to determine duration and amount. It is very subjective and depends on the particulars of each case. In order to find out what alimony rights you may have, contact us and we will be happy to discuss your case.