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Alimony in Pennsylvania


From Pennsylvania’s earliest colonial times until June of 1980, our divorce law was strictly based upon whether or not one spouse had behaved sufficiently badly to give the other spouse “grounds” or a legally qualified reason or reasons to obtain a divorce. In other words, one could get a divorce if the other party was “at fault”. This type of divorce is now called a “fault” divorce and it is still part of our law. 

In June of 1980, Pennsylvania’s newly passed no-fault divorce law became effective making divorces between two consenting spouses much simpler as there was now no need for one party to blame the other at a hearing in court and in the filed divorce documents. Another thing that was not part of Pennsylvania’s divorce law until June of 1980 was alimony. Many spouses were surprised to find out that Pennsylvania now “had alimony” after around two hundred years without it being part of our law.

Alimony in Pennsylvania (and elsewhere), in short, is regularly scheduled monetary payments in specified amounts for a specified period of time from one ex-spouse to another ex-spouse. “Ex-spouse” is an important word in this context. Regular payments of money from one spouse to another spouse (obviously, two people who are still married to one another) is not alimony under Pennsylvania law, but rather those payments are called “spousal support“. So, “ex-spouse”, alimony and “spouse”, spousal support.

Married people have a legal duty of support of, to and for one another. Alimony, payments to or from someone to whom one is no longer married, only becomes required if the divorce court orders it to be paid or if the divorcing couple enters a binding, professionally created, written agreement for the payment of alimony.

When one spouse decides that he or she no longer wants to be married and tells that to the other spouse, among other things to be considered, alimony might be discussed. Typically, alimony might be wanted by the spouse who has the smaller income. Accordingly, if it is the spouse with the greater income who wants begins the divorce process, the spouse with the lesser income may well be in the position to make the payment of alimony a condition of agreeing not to contest the divorce. Like most things in life, if we want something, we usually must give up something to get it. 

A spouse may agree to pay alimony for any number of reasons. Generosity or feeling guilty are two of the common reasons. Another spouse may agree to pay alimony because he or she considers it the right thing to do. And note that I said “he or she”. Yes, alimony is gender-neutral. Either party may be the more successful one in a marriage. That consideration is even more obvious in Pennsylvania’s now fully legal same-sex marriages wherein gender plays no part in who makes more money in the classic context.

Perhaps more often than not, the more well-off spouse would rather not pay any alimony. In such cases, that spouse needs to know that, if divorce is inevitable, if those two spouses cannot settle on alimony and the division of the rest of the marital assets, the whole mess could very well end up in court and the judge will look at all financial aspects of the marriage and divide the assets up in a financially equitable – not necessarily to say “equal” – manner. The judge’s goal would be to set the two ex-spouses on their respective new life paths on as equal of a financial footing as possible. The payment of alimony could well be part of that picture. And, to a large extent, who has been bad and who has been good will not influence the judge’s thinking…except, possibly, for alimony in Pennsylvania. That last phrase may be found to be troubling for some readers and encouraging for others. I will explain soon.

In Pennsylvania’s divorce law, there are about a dozen and a half listed determinants for the court – and the parties if they prefer to save thousands of dollars in legal fees – to consider. First, as I have alluded to hereinabove several times, compare the incomes of the spouses. It is not all that rare for one spouse to have a well-paying professional career and for the other to have stayed home during the 30 or 40 years of marriage caring for the children and home and now being with no qualifications for reasonable employment. In that extreme example, it is easy to guess what a judge would do with the unemployable spouse’s request for alimony, is it not?

Next to consider is the length of the marriage. The immediately preceding example of a lengthy marriage more or less speaks for itself, but what if divorce is filed after only a year or two and neither party’s financial position or employment has changed from the way they were at the time of the wedding? The court may view a request for alimony as overreaching in such a situation pointing out to the requesting party that they are no worse off than they were a year or two ago and asking why they deserve to be “subsidized” by means of alimony. It is well to note at this point that alimony is not designed as a “free ride” but is intended to be largely rehabilitative to get the recipient back on their feet financially.

The ages and physical, mental and emotional states of each party may come into play. You can imagine the possible scenarios. A divorce happens in a classic May-December marriage wherein the 75 year old professional spouse is asked for alimony by the 25 year old unemployed spouse after one year of marriage. Or, after 30 years of marriage, the working spouse wants out and the other has such severe mental problems that gainful employment is not possible. How about a case wherein the breadwinner is in an accident and, as a result, is now permanently confined to a wheelchair after five years of marriage and the other, while currently unemployed is a licensed dental hygienist, able to find employment but not really wanting to and would rather collect alimony from the wheelchair-bound spouse’s multimillion dollar settlement? The court is typically reasonable in deciding what’s fair in such cases and the outcomes would likely be close to what you might expect.

Also to be added in is what each party can be expected to earn in the future as well as what each could possibly inherit from a relative or friend. Future earnings predictions will largely depend upon what a party is earning now and how long the party has had that job. In other words, how secure is that employment? Future inheritances are a bit of a roll of the dice. For example, you may be your widowed, 90 year old Uncle Charlie’s only living relative, but what if he finds a new “love of his life” on a dating website and marries a few months after your divorce is final. You know that does happen. A change in the will is coming fast.

Here’s something you may not think of unless it is part of your own situation: What about your investments of time, work and money that made it possible for your spouse to receive education and/or training that increased your spouse’s income or potential? Yes, indeed it would be fair for you to recoup that by way of alimony (but remember that, during the marriage, you may have reaped some of the benefits of your spouse’s income).

This is common among young divorcing couples: One party is given custody of one or more young children and caring for them limits income possibilities. Not only might that spouse deserve some financial help through alimony, but the alimony helps the children be raised by a parent rather than relatives, friends or even strangers standing in. The court recognizes the value of children being raised by a parent and could act on that need.

Because alimony’s purpose is to be rehabilitative, a divorcing spouse may not expect to receive sufficient alimony to be able to maintain the nice lifestyle enjoyed during the marriage; however, if the spouse paying alimony in Pennsylvania can afford to continue that lifestyle, it is likely that the court will help the other spouse continue it as well. It really would not be fair for the paying spouse to golf every weekend at a private country club while the other has to cut out coupons to afford an occasional round of miniature golf.

What about the educational or training level of each spouse? If one is a surgeon and the other is a nursing home assistant, you can guess at the result; moreover, it may have been a plan in the works during the marriage for the low level income spouse, who had finished college, to attend dental school. It is possible that the court may think it fair that alimony help make that education happen.

Sometimes one spouse might bring the marital residence into the marriage from before the wedding, maybe a nice place with four bedrooms, two and a half baths, a three-car garage, all paid for and in a nice neighborhood. Or, before the marriage, that spouse sells the place and brings in a $300.000.00 nest egg for the new family. In a divorce, decades later, the court will consider the value of those contributions and weigh them against the need for alimony and the other party’s ability to pay it.

The medical needs of a party can even enter into the calculations. A legitimate health or even special need to maintain a normal personal appearance, such as a spouse who suffered the loss of a limb during the marriage. 

Now, here’s one that everyone who is asked to pay alimony in Pennsylvania will bring up: Marital misconduct. What the misconduct was, how often it occurred, how long it went on and even when the other spouse found out about it can play a part. Now, a spouse who unquestionably did not care about the adulterous conduct of the other spouse may not now be able to complain about it, but if that conduct was to have been only recently discovered after it had been going on for years (and is even the reason for wanting the divorce), the court could decide to reduce or even deny alimony. A more clear example of such a decision is physical abuse and living under the genuine threat of it. That could be costly to the abusive spouse from whom alimony is sought.

There can be tax consequences for the payment or receipt of alimony and how that would affect either spouse should be considered and it could affect the amount paid after considering the tax brackets of the parties.

If a spouse seeking alimony in Pennsylvania owns several pieces of real estate, either all paid for or with plenty of equity, the court could reduce alimony inasmuch as selling some property could reduce a spouse’s needs without hurting that spouse otherwise. The same reasoning would apply to goodly amounts in bank accounts, stocks and bonds etc. One may not be able to hang on to one’s cake and still collect pies from the other spouse.

And finally, if a spouse seeking alimony is able to support him or herself, but choose not to do so, the judge is likely to peer down from the bench and tell that spouse that the court will only help those who help themselves…get a job.

The foregoing lays out Pennsylvania law’s considerations in deciding who will pay alimony, in what amount and for how long. Frankly, it is all common sense when one thinks about it and is based upon economic fairness. Using this information, a divorcing couple should be able to arrive at a mutually satisfactory alimony plan and, in doing so, will save thousands by not having lawyers and the court do it for them.