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What Is Alimony?

Divorce is the death of a dream. It’s plans for the future turning to ash at your feet. It’s a trauma looming in the distance or beating down your door.

In a situation like divorce, facts are your friends. And understanding what alimony is and how it works can help you create order amidst the chaos.

But before we look at alimony and how it works, know you’re not alone. You’re probably thinking, Yeah right, Delony. I’ve never felt more alone in my entire life. I know it sounds like a load of nonsense when your marriage is falling apart right before your eyes. But there’s hope for your future. You can heal from this trauma and take positive steps forward. Divorce is brutal and gut-wrenching for a thousand different reasons, but you deserve to be well. And you will be.

How Does Alimony Work?

Well, first: What is alimony? Alimony is a one-time payment or series of payments one spouse makes to the other after their marriage ends in divorce.

The purpose of alimony is to help pay for clothing, transportation, housing, food and other living expenses—whether or not a couple has kids (because alimony is different from child support). And there are a few things the judge looks at to figure out how much alimony should be paid and for how long—especially if one spouse made much more money than the other.

I want to call this out: Alimony isn’t about getting revenge on an ex. It’s about creating some financial stability during this big life change. And not everyone qualifies to get alimony. Divorce attorneys and judges will decide if a spouse can or can’t financially support themselves or maintain their standard of living after divorce.

Before we go any further, you need to do this: Find an attorney you trust. This is so important. You need someone with the training and skills to walk you through the legal process and the changes and disappointment happening in your life.

How Does a Judge Decide on Alimony?

Depending on the state where you live, how long you’ve been married, and your lifestyle as a couple (meaning your incomes, living situation, property ownership, debt payments and other family expenses), your divorce attorney and the judge will decide if you or your spouse need the support of alimony payments during or after your divorce.

And this isn’t a one-way street: Either spouse can get alimony if they depended on the other financially. Each state has a different way of handling how much alimony will be paid out. Some states, like New York, use a formula to decide payments.1 Others, like Tennessee, work case-by-case and look at a spouse’s individual needs.2

There are a lot of things a judge looks at to decide how much alimony should be paid—and for how long. Here are a few of them:

  • Length of the marriage
  • Age of each spouse
  • Earning potential of each spouse
  • Childcare responsibilities
  • Any physical or mental health conditions needing care
  • The value of individual assets (like retirement and savings accounts)
  • Each spouse’s education level and ability to earn income
  • Property ownership (like houses and vehicles)
  • Marital fault (the reason for the divorce)
  • Changes in housing or living situations

Who Makes the Alimony Payments?

When a couple gets divorced, how do the legal professionals decide who gets what? That all depends on lifestyle standards, income and what life will look like for each spouse after the divorce.

Here’s one example: Say Mike and Joanne are filing for divorce. Mike makes $90,000 per year, and Joanne is a stay-at-home mom. They’ve been married for eight years, own a four-bedroom home, and have two kids.

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Because Joanne depended on Mike’s salary, a judge would likely look at this situation and see that Joanne will need financial support to cover her average monthly expenses after the divorce. Mike will make monthly payments to Joanne to help cover her basic living expenses, like rent, groceries and clothes—at least until she remarries or can support herself with her own salary. (Remember, alimony payments are different from child support, so this isn’t about the kids’ needs.)

Here’s another example: Andrew makes $55,000, and Kate makes $65,000. They’ve been married for two years and rent an apartment. They don’t have any kids, and they both have bachelor’s degrees. Because Kate makes more money, the judge might decide that she should pay Andrew alimony for a short time until he’s fully self-supported after the divorce.

Since these two are close to equal with their income and education, haven’t been married for very long, and don’t own a home together, it’s unlikely either one will get long-term alimony here. Both of them can support themselves on their own incomes with very little lifestyle change.

What Are the Types of Alimony?

Whether you’re receiving alimony payments or making them, you should understand how each type of spousal support works.

Alimony can be given in long-term, short-term, temporary or even lump-sum payments (which could be money or a transfer of property). This will depend on your state and the circumstances of your marriage, so talk to your divorce attorney so you can understand how to move forward in your unique situation.

So, what are the different types of alimony, and how long do they last?

Temporary Alimony

This is a series of short-term payments that are meant to support a spouse during the separation or divorce. Once the divorce is final, the payments will end.

Rehabilitative Alimony

Rehabilitative alimony is a short-term alimony meant to help a spouse get back on their feet until they can get to a better place financially. This could mean they advance their career or build on their education to up their income after the divorce.

For example, rehabilitative support might be paid if one spouse is finishing a degree and doesn’t have a job. Alimony payments could continue until that spouse graduates and lands a job that can support their lifestyle after the divorce.

Permanent or Long-Term Support

This type of alimony is paid to an ex-spouse until they retire (unless they get remarried). Usually, this type of alimony goes to someone who’s been married for a long time. And it’s more common if one spouse gave up a career to stay home with the kids or support the other spouse’s career goals. (Now that most families are two-income households, this type of alimony is less common.)

Reimbursement Alimony

Reimbursement alimony is when one spouse pays back the other for big expenses that happened while they were married (like the cost of a degree or some other financial sacrifice for the other spouse’s growth and success).

What Are My Next Steps?

Divorce isn’t just sad and hard. It reshapes how you see and experience your world. It changes everything you know and believed to be true, including how you trust yourself. And if you find yourself in this situation, there are a few things you’ll want to take care of.

Get around people who can help you.

Divorce is lonely, and you’ll need guidance and support—especially on those days when you don’t feel like facing the world. Think about the different areas of life where you’ll need a friend or professional to walk alongside you. You’ll need an attorney for legal advice, a trusted friend for emotional support, and a therapist or pastor for spiritual guidance.

Finances are another area where you'll need some expert advise. A finance professional can help you make changes to your insurance, retirement and other accounts. And filing taxes after divorce can be a headache, so reach out to a tax pro. They know how things like alimony, child support, and changing your filing status affects your return, so they can make sure everything's good to go before you file. 

I know it might sound overwhelming to have to find so many experts. Our team at Ramsey Solutions can help you connect with vetted advisors through our Ramsey Trusted services. You can search and connect with financial advisors, tax pros, insurance agents and more helpful experts in your area who can help guide you through these big life changes.

Look at your monthly expenses.

Review your budget and make sure your emergency fund is rock solid. Once you have an idea of your monthly expenses and savings, it’ll be easier to see how your current lifestyle might change after divorce. For example: If you and your spouse are living on two incomes, how much would you need to make to live on your own?

Organize important papers.

Your head is probably spinning with anxiety trying to keep track of details, questions and emotions. This is completely normal, and that’s why I’ve created a free Divorce Checklist to help you get organized. This guide will walk you through each next step you need to take to protect yourself and walk through this big life process. I cover things like how to care for yourself, how to handle your finances, and what important documents you’ll need.

Keep moving forward.

I’m sorry you’re walking through this. Divorce is one of the loneliest and most challenging experiences a person can have. But if you get the right people in your corner, are willing to take one step forward every day, and believe you deserve to be well, you will make it through this. I believe in you. For more teachings around healing from whatever life throws at you and building a more peaceful, joyful and non-anxious life, check out my new book, Building a Non-Anxious Life.

New! Building a Non-Anxious Life

If you create a life of intentionally living out the six choices outlined in this book, you’ll be able to better respond to whatever life throws at you and build a more peaceful, joyful, non-anxious life.

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Dr. John Delony

About the author

Dr. John Delony

Dr. John Delony is a mental health expert with two PhDs from Texas Tech University—one in counselor education and supervision and the other in higher education administration. Before joining Ramsey Solutions in 2020, John spent two decades in crisis response, walking with people through severe trauma. Now at Ramsey Solutions, John writes, speaks and teaches on relationships, mental health, anxiety and wellness. He hosts The Dr. John Delony Show and also serves as co-host of The Ramsey Show, the second-largest talk show in the nation. In 2022, John’s book Own Your Past, Change Your Future instantly became a #1 national bestseller. You can also find John featured on DailyMailTV, Fox Business and The Minimalists Podcast. Learn More.

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