Alimony (also known as spousal support) is a four-letter word in divorce jargon. You might also think of it as the fifth horseman or the 11th plague. This ancient Babylonian practice is thought to have originated around 1754 BC, forming part of the Hammurabi Code.
Turning to here in the second millennium, AD, in the land of equality and feminism, there shouldn’t be much of a need for it.
So why is alimony still around? And, more importantly, how can you minimize or avoid it? Let’s look at ways to eliminate spousal support from your set of financial responsibilities.
Why is Alimony Still Around?
The short answer is that many of our laws can be traced back to the Hammurabi Code. Alimony is just one of many legal artefacts that have survived several millennia.
The actual text relates to the “until death do us part” bit of the marriage vows and reads something like this:
A man has a duty to support his wife until the marriage ends. He might have left his wife but would continue, under law, to provide her with financial support. Since marriage does not end until death, payments must continue until one of them dies.
In other words, because divorce wasn’t allowed, one would be forever responsible for the financial well-being of their spouse.
Some strategies to avoid or minimize alimony payments are available. You can take preemptive action to prevent the problem from arising in the first place. You can also negotiate your own arrangements or petition the court to reduce the size of your obligations.
How to Avoid Alimony Before Divorce
Like most unpleasantries, prevention is the best cure. Although alimony is ingrained into our society — and hardwired in the divorce process — paying does not have to be an inevitable part of life post divorce.
Before taking the plunge and getting married, you may want to sit down with your betrothed for a serious chat. Do some financial planning, of sorts, for the unlikely and unwanted event that you two end up divorced.
1. Encourage your partner to work
A dual-income household is the goal here. Empower your fiancé to generate their own income. Try to establish a productive rhythm in your home life before you even start on married life.
Independence is a wonderful thing that fuels positive self-worth. You achieve a better standard of living as well as each having the ability to support yourselves independently in the event of divorce.
Divorce settlement outcomes are largely driven by income and work patterns in the marriage. Strategize to create a productive, financially independent pattern in advance of the big day.
2. Draft a prenuptial agreement that includes a spousal support provision
A prenuptial agreement helps you iron out the details and enter the union with clear expectations. Here are a few great suggestions for how to handle alimony when the moment comes to write up your agreement.
How to Reduce Your Alimony by Agreement
To keep your former spouse in the lifestyle to which they became accustomed while married, you’ll likely have to pay alimony.
However, you can have alimony reduced or terminated altogether by filing a motion for modifying the divorce decree. Such a move is possible after the divorce was finalized if: (a) something happened to affect your ability to earn enough money to cover alimony payments or (b) you don’t believe your ex needs the financial support any more.
Here’s how to file a motion to reduce alimony.
1. Check your divorce decree for circumstances in which alimony will be automatically terminated or reduced.
Your divorce decree might, for example, specify that alimony payments are suspended if you lose your job. If that happens, payments should automatically terminate according to the decree.
Also check the circumstances text on your former spouse’s side. A cohabitation restriction would, for example, cause payments to end if she has moved in with a life partner.
2. If you and your ex are on good terms, talk to her about changed circumstances.
If a number of years have passed since the divorce, your ex may be less dependent on alimony payments than initially.
Even if the decree doesn’t allow for changes in circumstances, but something significant has happened, your ex may be willing to effectively agree to an amendment.
If they agree, you then need to have the new agreement approved by a judge to make it legally enforceable.
3. Draft an amended agreement.
Outline the new terms you and she have agreed upon. The document should identify you and your ex-spouse and mention the original divorce decree, including the date it was entered. State that you are both agreeing to modify the terms of the original.
Cite the case number and caption for your original divorce action. The court clerk may have a template form available online or in paper form.
4. You and your ex sign the motion.
Make sure you sign in front of a notary and have it notarized. Also attach an original copy of the divorce decree. Copy or electronically distribute the entire packet so you each have copies for your records.
5. File a motion in court.
You have to pay a court filing fee to present the motion to the court. You may also have to include a draft agreed order for the judge to sign. Be sure to ask the clerk when you file if you need to do this.
6. Go to court
It’s not required everywhere. But in some jurisdictions, you have to appear before a judge for a signed order. Other judges will ask you to show up for a brief hearing.
If you are asked to come in for a hearing, the judge will question you and your ex about the circumstances leading up to the changes. They’l likely inquire whether or not you both agree to the new reduced (or eliminated) payment arrangement.
But, in most cases, the judge will sign off on an agreed order without a hearing. You will be notified by the court clerk when the order is ready.
7. Make plenty of copies
Copy the judge’s signed order multiple times to ensure you have enough around for any interested parties.
Minimize Alimony by Court Order
Ideally, you and your ex are on reasonably good terms. But, where that’s not the case, you will have to go about the process differently.
1. Hire an attorney.
Contested motions for modification have the potential to be as elaborate and ugly as the original divorce proceedings. In this predicament, you can bet your ex is lawyering-up as well.
If money is tight and can’t afford to pay an attorney to handle the entire proceeding, at least hire one for a few hours. They can provide you with an accurate review of your draft motion.
If your ex intends to fight the motion, you might just need an attorney to handle complicated issues and provide some legal expertise during trial and discovery.
2. Find modification reasons.
Look for circumstances discussed earlier as reasons to modify or terminate alimony payments prescribed by the original divorce decree.
3. Draft your motion to modify your decree.
The motion will have the same case number and caption as the original. Include all required documentation.
If you want to modify your alimony payments and your ex doesn’t agree, you need to file a motion with the court demonstrating that substantial changes justify an adjustment.
4. Sign your motion in front of a notary public.
If you have an attorney, he or she will take care of witnessing your signature.
Once signed and notarized, attach a copy of your original divorce decree and all other exhibits you’re going to submit as evidence of your change in circumstances. As usual, make copies or keep a digital copy.
5. File your motion.
Your attorney, if you have retained one, will have this part taken care of on your behalf.
6. Serve your ex-spouse.
Once filed in the court’s system, serve your ex-spouse with a copy along with a notice of hearing. You can either serve her yourself or hire a legal process server to handle it for you.
7. Once served, your ex has a certain amount of time in which to file a response.
If they don’t file a response within that time, you can request a default judgement in your favor.
While the case is pending, you still have to make your regular alimony payments. Or at least make partial payments in good faith.
Note that, if the judge rules in your favor (or you win your case by default), it will only apply to future payments. Past due payments, are still payable.
8. Gather your evidence.
At the hearing, you need to prove your case.
Ahead of the hearing, you have time to conduct discovery. Request copies of any documents you need from your ex.
For example, if you heard your ex was recently promoted at work and no longer needs alimony, you can request documents to verifying their earnings.
Courts weigh your ability to keep paying against your ex-spouse’s financial needs. If your ability to pay has fallen only slightly while her need has stayed the same or increased, your request may well be denied.
If you filed your motion because you lost your job, keep records of failed job searches so the judge knows you’re actively looking for work. You don’t want it to appear that you quit your job to avoid paying alimony.
9. Show up at your hearing.
Organize your documents the night before so you have them on hand without having to shuffle through a mess of papers.
You filed the motion, so you have the first turn to speak. Keep your statements brief. And stick to facts. Practice the night before.
10. Once a judge signs the order, make copies.
You never know when you might need the new court order.
Other Factors to Consider
Alimony is an antiquated practice turned into modern-day law. It’s a way to make one spouse continually responsible for the other — even long after they were spouses.
Much of the Hammurabi Code has been abandoned and removed from the present-day legal system. When the practice of alimony will also be discarded is unclear.
Some progressive states have made changes to their alimony laws to restrict the circumstances under which a spouse qualifies for support.
Other laws restrict further, only allowing enough time for the receiver to get back on his or her feet. If at the end of that term the recipient still needs support, a motion to extend must be filed.
Alimony payments are tax deductible
- The payer receives a deduction
- The recipient must claim alimony payments as taxable income
- Payments must be made in cash
- Exchanging property is not allowed
Some states allow for permanent, life-long alimony
States like Florida, West Virginia, and New Jersey allow a judge to order a permanent financial order of support from one spouse to another. In such cases, whether or not a paying party can end permanent alimony depends largely on why alimony was ordered.