Spousal support (also called maintenance or alimony) is court-ordered financial assistance paid by one ex-spouse to another during or after a divorce. The primary purpose of spousal support is to provide financial stability to the lower-earning spouse and to help them maintain the same standard of living they enjoyed during the marriage. For example, a multi-millionaire couple would have a different standard of living compared to a middle-class couple.
However, not all spouses are entitled to receive spousal support, and there are specific legal factors and procedures that determine whether or not spousal support will be awarded. Let’s dive into the legal factors that determine spousal support, the circumstances under which it can be denied, and how a prenup comes into play.
A Quick Note on State Laws
Before we get into the meat of this article, we want to make it clear that every state has its own laws around spousal support. That means that in one state, how a court determines spousal support and whether or not to deny it may not be the same as how another state does it.
There is typically a state statute in every state that lays out the factors that determine alimony. For example, in California, the factors to be considered in approving an order for alimony include (but are not limited to):
- The skills of the person asking for alimony and the job market for those skills
- The extent to which the person asking for alimony supported their spouse in their career (i.e., did the person asking for support quit their job so their partner could pursue their dream?)
- The ability of the person paying alimony to actually pay it
- And much more.
Now, remember, the above factors are for CALIFORNIA specifically. While the factors may also be similar in other states, it’s important to understand that every state has its own rules on this topic.
With that said, let’s dive deeper into these factors (while keeping in mind that it varies from state to state).
Legal Factors That Determine Spousal Support
Without further ado, let’s talk about what factors many courts (depending on the state) will consider when approving or denying spousal support.
One of the primary factors considered by most courts in determining alimony is the financial need of the person asking for support. If the person seeking alimony can demonstrate that they are unable to support themselves financially, the court may award spousal support.
Ability to Pay
Most courts in most states also consider the ability of the paying spouse to actually pay the spousal support. If the person being asked to pay does not have the financial means to pay alimony, the court may deny the request for spousal support. You can’t force someone to pay something they don’t have.
Whether One Spouse Supported the Other
If the spouse requesting alimony quit their career or never pursued a career in order to support their spouse’s career, it may be taken into consideration by the court. For example, if Jennie and John got married and John wanted to pursue his dream of being an astronaut. But John could only do that if he went back to school to study and Jennie stayed home with the children. This may be a good indicator that Jennie supported John to her own detriment and could be one factor leading toward an alimony award.
Length of the Marriage
The length of the marriage is another typical factor many courts use in determining spousal support. Generally, longer marriages are more likely to result in spousal support awards, as the lower-earning spouse may have become accustomed to a particular standard of living during the marriage and/or forfeited their career to take care of the home and raise the children. As the duration of the marriage increases, it becomes more challenging to distinguish the individual assets and contributions of each spouse, leading to a blur of “whose is whose.”
Age and Health of the Parties
The age and health of the parties are also frequently considered by many states when determining spousal support. If the requesting spouse is older or in poor health, they may have a greater need for financial support (if their partner has the ability to pay it).
Education and Earning Capacity
The court also considers the education and earning capacity of the requesting spouse. If the requesting spouse has a higher education or significant earning capacity, the court may deny their request for spousal support.
This may include analyzing any marketable skills they have and the job market available for those skills. It may also include what type of education or training the person requesting support would need in order to develop marketable skills to get a job.
The Assets of Each Person
What does each person have to their name? Let’s say the person asking for alimony doesn’t have the ability to get a job, and the other person has the ability to pay spousal support. BUT the person requesting support also has a house (paid off) and a significant investment fund with over $20 million in it. Taking into consideration what each person has in terms of assets is another way many courts decide if alimony is appropriate or not.
Circumstances When Spousal Support May Be Denied
Now that you understand just some of the ways a court looks at a case to determine whether or not alimony is appropriate let’s talk about some of the ways it’s likely to be denied.
If the requesting spouse is financially self-sufficient, the court may deny their request for spousal support. Financial self-sufficiency may be demonstrated by the requesting spouse’s ability to support themselves through their own income or assets.
Inability to Pay
If the person who is being requested to pay alimony simply does not have the funds or means to pay it, then a court may decline to order alimony. This is pretty common sense–if the person doesn’t have the money or the ability to make money, they can’t just produce alimony out of thin air. It could also cause the person paying it to experience extreme financial hardship, which also isn’t an outcome a court wants to induce.
Cohabitation or Remarriage
Many states only allow the continuation or payment of alimony when the other person does not have support from another partner. If the requesting spouse begins cohabiting with a new partner or remarries, the court may (depending on the state laws) terminate or modify their spousal support order.
Short Duration Marriage
If a marriage is extremely short-lived, a court may be hesitant to award alimony. For example, let’s say Kate and Kevin were married for just a year, and Kevin requests alimony. A court may say that it’s not warranted in this case (in addition to the consideration of all of their situation as a whole) because the marriage was such a short amount of time. In such a short amount of time, it’s rare that finances and two lives have become so intertwined that one person is required to financially support the other. On the other hand, a marriage that lasted 20 years would likely have a completely different response from a court.
Young, Healthy, with High Earning Potential Person Requests Alimony
If someone is young, healthy, and has great earning potential, a court may also be hesitant to award alimony because someone who is young, healthy, and has the skills to earn money. It may be a bit unnecessary to require financial support from the other person. But again, this depends on the whole of the circumstances.
Prenups and Spousal Support
With a valid and enforceable prenup, most states will allow you to limit or waive alimony completely. In other words, you could limit how much spousal support is paid (putting a cap on payment, restricting which income sources it comes from, etc.), or you can waive it completely. If you waive alimony, that means you are saying you agree that the other person cannot request alimony in the event of a divorce. You’ve already agreed no one should pay it.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about spousal support
Q: Can spousal support be denied if both spouses have similar incomes?
A: Yes, it is possible that a court would deny spousal support if both spouses have similar incomes and financial resources, but that may not always be the case. It depends on the specific circumstances and the state laws.
Q: Can spousal support be denied if the requesting spouse has a job?
A: It depends on the specific circumstances of the case. If the requesting spouse has a job and can support themselves financially, the court may deny spousal support. But they may also award alimony, too. It’s very dependent on state law and specific circumstances.
Q: Can spousal support be denied if the marriage is short?
A: Yes, if the marriage was short, the court may deny spousal support, as the lower-earning spouse may not have become accustomed to a particular standard of living during the marriage.
Q: Can spousal support be denied if the supporting spouse is unemployed?
A: If the paying spouse is unemployed but has the financial means to pay spousal support, the court may still order them to pay spousal support. Again, it depends on the specifics of the case.
Q: Can spousal support be denied if the requesting spouse has a new partner?
A: In many states, if the spouse requesting alimony is cohabiting with a new partner or is remarried, the court order for alimony may be thrown out. Again, every state law is different, so you’ll need to check in with what your law says about alimony and cohabitation/remarriage.
The bottom line is that spousal support is not guaranteed in every case, and there are specific legal factors and procedures that determine whether or not spousal support will be awarded. What legal factors and procedures come into play depends on your state’s laws. Financial self-sufficiency, the inability to pay, good health and age, short marriage duration, and cohabitation or remarriage are all circumstances that may result in the denial of spousal support. The only way to make sure you avoid spousal support is through a valid and enforceable prenup!
Nicole Sheehey is the Head of Legal Content at HelloPrenup, and an Illinois licensed attorney. She has a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to prenuptial agreements. Nicole has Juris Doctor from John Marshall Law School. She has a deep understanding of the legal and financial implications of prenuptial agreements, and enjoys writing and collaborating with other attorneys on the nuances of the law. Nicole is passionate about helping couples locate the information they need when it comes to prenuptial agreements. You can reach Nicole here: [email protected]