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Alimony: The Rest of the Story

July 19, 2011

This article is intended to separate fact from fiction concerning alimony. People going through a divorce often believe that courts award alimony as a lifetime pension or as punishment for the breakup of the marriage. However, the reality of alimony awards is quite different from the public perception.

The modern day concept of alimony is to "rehabilitate" the dependent spouse so that he or she can become economically self-sufficient. However, if the dependent spouse reaches the full potential of his or her earning capacity and is still at an unconscionably disparate level from the other spouse, then alimony may be awarded for an indefinite period of time.

There are three types of alimony in Maryland: temporary alimony (also referred to as alimony pendente lite), rehabilitative alimony, and indefinite alimony. Each type of alimony has its own distinct legal burden which must be met before a party is eligible for an award.

Temporary alimony may be awarded while the parties are still married, but are in the process of obtaining a divorce. Before awarding a spouse temporary alimony, the court must make two considerations. The court must first determine if the dependent spouse needs temporary alimony. If the need is established, then the court must determine if the other party is able to pay temporary alimony. The court may not consider who was at fault for the breakup of the marriage at this time. Temporary alimony awards will terminate at the time of divorce.

After the divorce, rehabilitative alimony may be awarded. The purpose of rehabilitative alimony is not to provide a lifetime pension to a dependent spouse. Instead, the purpose is to allow a dependent spouse to become wholly or partially self-supporting to the extent that he/she is able. Rehabilitative alimony is awarded for a fixed period of time, but can be extended or modified by the courts as circumstances and justice require.

Before making an award of rehabilitative alimony, the court is required to consider a number of factors under Maryland law. These factors include: the ability of the party seeking alimony to be wholly or partly self-supporting; the time necessary for the party seeking alimony to gain sufficient education or training to find suitable employment; the standard of living during the marriage; the duration of the marriage; the monetary and non-monetary contributions each party made to the family; the circumstances that contributed to the estrangement of the parties; the age of each party; the physical and mental condition of each party; the ability to pay; any agreement between the parties; and the financial needs and resources of each party. Legally, no factor is more important than the other.

The third type of alimony award is indefinite alimony. Indefinite alimony is awarded at the time of divorce, and embraces the notion that, even after a spouse has been made fully self-supporting, there still may be an imbalance in the parties’ standards of living.

Before awarding indefinite alimony, the court must consider the same factors as it would for an award of rehabilitative alimony. Then, the court must consider if age, illness, infirmity, or disability would prevent a spouse from making substantial progress towards becoming self-supporting, or, if even after the spouse seeking alimony has made as much progress towards becoming self-supporting as can reasonably be expected, the respective standards of living of the parties will still be unconscionably disparate. If the court finds that one or more of these factors exist, then the court may award indefinite alimony.

Maryland case law has given some guidance as to the meaning of an "unconscionably disparate" standard of living. Ordinarily, grossly disparate income between spouses translates into grossly disparate standards of living. However, a mere difference in post-divorce standard is not enough. The disparity in standards of living must be so different as to "offend the conscience."

Rehabilitative and indefinite alimony awards terminate at the death of either party, the remarriage of the recipient, or if the court finds that termination is necessary to avoid a harsh and inequitable result. For the court to reconsider the alimony award, either party can file a motion to modify or extend the alimony award. For example, if either party has had an increase or decrease in income, a court may determine that it is appropriate to modify or extend the alimony award.

It is important that those in the midst of a divorce understand their rights, obligations and legal burdens regarding claims for alimony. For more information regarding this issue, or any other issue involving family law, contact Ferrier Stillman

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