What Is Alimony?

The History of Alimony

Legal dictionaries define alimony as a payment a family court or divorce court may order one spouse to pay another when that couple divorces.

The purpose of alimony is to avoid any unfair economic consequences of a divorce, even after the property is divided and child support, if any, is awarded. Courts set few specific guidelines to attaining this broad goal: instead of telling judges how and when to award alimony, most courts simply grant them broad discretion to decide what is fair in each case.

The concept of alimony actually goes back thousands of years, to Mesopotamia and Babylonia. Alimony has been discussed in ancient legal texts such as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi and the Code of Justinian from the Roman Empire. Alimony in the United States has roots in English ecclesiastical, or church courts, that awarded alimony in cases of separation and divorce. Alimony Pendente lite, or temporary alimony, was given as a placeholder until the divorce decree, based on the principle of the husband’s duty to support the wife during an ongoing marriage.

The term alimony comes from the Latin word alimonia, meaning “nourishment or sustenance”,which, interestingly enough, gave birth to the word alimentary,  relating to food, nutrition and digestion. The Scots had the law of aliment, which   was a rule of sustenance to assure the wife’s lodging, food, clothing, and other necessities after she was divorced.

Alimony Requirements

How alimony is decided varies greatly around the world, and from state to state in the United States. For instance, states like Texas, Montana, Kansas, Utah, Kentucky and Maine, give quite explicit guidelines to judges on the amount of alimony to be paid and how long it must be paid after a divorce. In Texas, Mississippi and Tennessee for example, alimony is awarded only in cases of marriage or civil union of ten years or longer and the payments are limited to three years unless there are special, circumstances. Also, the amount of spousal support is limited to the lesser of $2,500 per month or 40% of the payee’s gross income.

In Delaware, spousal support is usually not awarded in marriages of less than 10 years. In Kansas, alimony awards cannot exceed 121 months. In Utah, the duration of alimony cannot exceed the length of the marriage. In Maine, Mississippi, and Tennessee, alimony is awarded in marriages or civil union of 10 to 20 years and the duration of the payment is half the length of the marriage in most cases.

Massachusetts, California, Nevada and New York just list the “factors” a judge should consider when determining alimony. These factors include the length of the marriage, who’s at fault, the age of the spouses at the time of the divorce and the outlook for the financial future of the spouses, for example. In these states, the determination of duration and amount of alimony is left to the discretion of the family court judges who must consider case law in each state.

In Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas and Tennessee, for example, there are 135 Appellate cases in addition to 47 sections of State Statute that shape divorce law. As a result of these Appellate Cases, for example, Massachusetts and Mississippi judges cannot order an end date to any alimony award. Most alimony awards in the states are made for life, usually, regardless of the length of the marriage or civil union.



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