Alimony — How Much and How Long?

February 28, 2020

Well the short answer is, it depends.  Not so helpful, right?  If there were a simple answer, you’d be clicking on a link, running your analysis and we’d be done here.  Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward.  The Divorce Code in Pennsylvania (23 Pa. C.S. Section 3101, et seq.), unlike other states, is seemingly unapologetic in failing to provide a bright line for determining either the amount or duration of alimony.  In other words, there is no formula.

What Is Alimony?

First, let’s take a moment and make sure we are on the same page when we use the term, alimony.  These are cash dollars paid post-divorce to the lower income and/or wage-earning spouse of the formerly married couple.  With the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 and continuing until at least 2025, these payments are a non-taxable event.  Meaning, the payments are not taxable to the former spouse receiving the payments and are not deductible by the former spouse making the payments.  The exception to this would only apply to couples who, prior to December 31, 2017, had a written agreement or court order for a spouse to receive pre-divorce support.  If this is you, consult with legal counsel and a tax advisor.

How is Spousal Support Determined in PA?

So, how do you know if the court, meaning a judge, will allow an award of alimony, and if so, the amount and duration?  Unfortunately, the answer depends on what a judge will find necessary and reasonable under the circumstances.  In other words, this is a needs-based analysis that relies upon the Divorce Code’s 17 subjective factors.  Those include, among others, the following for each spouse: earnings and earning capacity; age and physical, mental and emotional condition; length of marriage; contribution to the other’s education or contributions that resulted in the other’s increased earnings; provided primary care for children while the other worked and had an impact on that parent’s earnings; contributions as a homemaker; lifestyle during the marriage; and assets and liabilities.  The spouse asking for alimony must show an inability to provide for his/her reasonable needs and that he/she is incapable of self-support through appropriate employment.  Providing documentation of and support for each factor is detailed, time-consuming and requires developing a comprehensive list of and records to support all “reasonable” expenditures to establish need.  In the end, the decision is ultimately left to a judge, a stranger with little opportunity to develop an appreciation of the history, dynamics and financial realities of you or your family, will subjectively apply these factors.  That’s right.  There is nothing formulaic or predictable in calculating the amount and term of alimony for you or any other couple, despite what you may find on a quick on-line search of this topic.

How Long Can Alimony Last?

On rare occasion, alimony is awarded for an indefinite period of time.  In most cases it is time limited and considers the factors noted above.  While you will not find this anywhere in the Divorce Code, you may have heard of the lore in the five-county, Greater Philadelphia area that a base line consideration for a term of alimony is one year for every three years of marriage.  For example, if you’ve been married for 15 years, a 5-year term of alimony may be considered.  Again, this is not law.  But rather has developed as a somewhat settled practice as a starting point in this community when thinking about a term for alimony payments.
A judge who is asked to make a decision regarding a spouse’s request for alimony must follow the law that is set forth in the Divorce Code.  The law states that alimony may be modified both as to the amount and duration, depending upon the substantial and continuing nature of an intervening event post-divorce.  The law also requires the automatic termination of alimony upon the death, remarriage or cohabitation of the spouse receiving alimony subsequent to the divorce.  While a judge must follow these laws in making a decision when there is a dispute as to alimony, consider this.  You and your spouse, by written agreement in an out-of-court settlement, can mutually decide that alimony is not modifiable and can mutually decide that alimony will continue after remarriage or cohabitation in some reduced amount and for a lesser period of time.

How Can a Family Lawyer Help You Understand Alimony?

If you are married, thinking about divorce and believe that alimony may be a consideration, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney to learn more about your unique situation and become well informed on the various alternatives to court processes.  These alternatives include collaborative law and mediation and will give you and your spouse an opportunity to find solutions to this and other important financial and parenting interests with the support of a well-trained team of attorneys and financial and mental health professionals.  Rather than surrendering critical financial decisions to a judge, maintain a say in the outcome that considers not only the immediate but also the long-term needs and interests of each of you and your family.  These alternatives present a welcomed opportunity for a more peaceful and healthier result in an otherwise chaotic and uncertain time.  Be in touch if you liked to learn more!

About Jean Biesecker

Jean Biesecker, J.D., MSW
Jean’s family law and dispute resolution practice serves clients in the greater Philadelphia community. Jean’s non-traditional approaches to separation and divorce provides her clients with support and compassion. The focus of her practice is to determine solutions that will meet her clients’ needs and those of their family into the future.
Click here to learn more about Jean Biesecker, J.D., MSW