When a couple goes through a divorce in Pennsylvania, one of the most divisive issues they face is the discussion of alimony or spousal support. In marriages where one spouse has a significantly higher income than the other, the court may consider granting alimony during a divorce. Alimony is a financial payment the court orders one spouse to pay to the other, but spouses are not always entitled to it. Also, most forms of spousal support are treated as separate support forms from child support, and they may be considered as income when formulating a child support agreement.
It's important to understand the types of alimony and spousal support Pennsylvania offers so you are better prepared to get what you need. You also need to understand what factors determine whether you will qualify, how long the financial support will last, and other provisions that affect payments.
Post-divorce alimony is the most common form, and it is what most people think about when they hear the term “alimony.” The courts award alimony only when necessary, and its purpose is to help the disadvantaged spouse support themselves and pay their bills if they are not working or can't afford to maintain their standard of living. The goal of awarding post-divorce alimony is to help mitigate the disadvantaged spouse from having to rely on financial support from the state.
The court may issue a spousal support order when the parties have separated but have not yet finalized their divorce. Spousal support exists to help a spouse financially who may struggle from the separation while the divorce is being worked out. In certain circumstances, the court may order spousal support even if the divorce has not yet been filed.
Alimony Pendente Lite
Alimony Pendente Lite (APL) literally translates to "alimony while the action is pending." The "action" in question is the divorce filing. Alimony Pendente Lite may be granted while a divorce case is open, but not finalized. An order for alimony pendente lite cannot be active while a spousal support order is active at the same time.
Some spouses may quit work to return to school to get degrees or advanced training to further their careers and increase their earning capacity. During this time, the other spouse may support their partner and become the sole breadwinner for the household.
If parties divorce before the non-working spouse finishes their education or realizes an increase in income, Pennsylvania courts can award reimbursement to the supporting spouse for things such as tuition and education costs, living expenses, and more.
Equitable reimbursement is not considered alimony. It is not meant to support a disadvantaged spouse but to provide compensation for the supporting spouse's financial losses. The court typically sets up an installment plan the other spouse can pay when they become financially able.
Factors That Can Affect Alimony and Spousal Support
Alimony is not guaranteed, nor is it a right. Barring any alimony agreement the spouses made on their own, the court will consider various factors when determining whether to award alimony or spousal support, including:
- Length of the marriage
- Spousal income and earning capacities
- Physical and mental health of each spouse
- Potential inheritance of each spouse
- Standard of living during the marriage
- Each spouse's financial needs
- Ability for a spouse to support themselves
- Education and training of both spouses
- Limits on earning capacity due to outside factors, such as a child
Many other factors may play a part in the court's decision-making as well, depending on your case.
How Long Does Alimony Last in Pennsylvania?
Alimony is usually temporary. If the court grants alimony, it will also decree how long the payments will last. The courts have a lot of discretion in determining the length of alimony, and spouses themselves can determine the length of alimony in their settlement agreement. If spouses come to a settlement regarding how long the alimony payments will last and how much they will be, the court may not terminate or modify the terms without both spouses' express consent.
In most cases, the court will grant alimony to last until the supported spouse becomes self-sufficient. Alimony can also end after certain events, such as the sale of the family home or an award of inheritance. The court can also award indefinite alimony in certain circumstances, such as if the dependent spouse will never be able to support themselves financially due to illness or disability.
Requesting and Terminating Alimony
Either spouse may request alimony, and either party can request alimony modifications or terminate alimony altogether. Alimony is typically terminated automatically if a spouse dies. However, the alimony agreement can include a clause that provides continued alimony for the supported spouse in the event of the paying spouse's death.
Another instance where alimony may terminate automatically is if the supported spouse remarries. However, if you and your spouse settled outside of court, your divorce agreement must contain a clause that states remarriage as grounds for termination. Also, the court will need to know of the remarriage before it can terminate the alimony order.
If the supported spouse cohabitated with someone in a romantic relationship while receiving alimony, the paying spouse may petition to terminate alimony. If the paying spouse wishes to terminate alimony based on cohabitation, they will have to prove the cohabitation exists and provide evidence that the relationship approximates a marriage.
For both marriage and cohabitation, you can file to terminate alimony as soon as you learn of the new arrangement, and you may be able to get reimbursement for the alimony you paid. For instance, you were paying your spouse alimony, but you didn't know your former spouse had remarried or was living with someone until several months later. In this case, the judge can order the supported spouse to pay back the alimony you paid since the date of their marriage or cohabitation.
How is Alimony Calculated in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania courts do not use a specific formula to calculate alimony payments as they do with child support payments. If spouses have not reached an alimony settlement and are relying on the court to make the decision, a judge will consider factors such as the couple's standard of living, the paying spouse's ability to pay, and the need for the dependent spouse to receive support until they can support themselves.
A judge may also require the paying spouse to cover the other's medical insurance or healthcare expenses when appropriate. Spouses can negotiate their own alimony agreements without input from the court and submit them for approval. Once the court approves the alimony order, it will become legally binding, and you will need a court order to modify or enforce it.
Modifying Alimony in Pennsylvania
Either spouse can request to increase or decrease alimony, provided they do not have a clause in their agreement that prevents it. A modification may become necessary if a spouse loses their job or receives a sizeable promotion, for instance.
A spouse that needs to request a modification will file a Petition to Modify Alimony Order with the court. The court will then schedule a hearing to review the matter and decide. Also, spouses may mediate the terms of the alimony agreement and come up with their own solution, and file with the court for approval.
The court will determine where a spouse remits alimony payments, which will be either the domestic relations (DR) department of the court that issued the alimony order or the DR department of the court where the receiving spouse lives. After receiving the payment, the DR department will forward the payment to the receiving spouse, minus any administrative fees, as soon as possible.
The DR department will also keep records of all payments and notify the court if a payment is 30 days late.
Enforcing an Alimony Order in Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania courts have the authority to enforce alimony orders if necessary. Some methods of enforcement they can use include:
- Entering a judgment against the paying spouse
- Garnish up to 50% of the paying spouse's wages
- Order the seizure of the paying spouse's property, including rent received from investment property and other profits
- Require the paying spouse to place security or collateral up for future payments
- Place interest on the payments
Importantly, the court may also declare the paying spouse in civil contempt of court. Penalties can include up to six months in prison and fines. The court may also award the supported spouse any attorney fees or court costs.
Alimony and Taxes
For divorces finalized before 2019, paying spouses may deduct alimony payments from their federal income taxes, and supported spouses must report alimony payments on their tax returns.
For divorces finalized after 2019, spouses no longer have any reporting requirements due to the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The IRS no longer counts alimony payments as income, and the paying spouse cannot take a deduction. Pennsylvania's state tax laws are the same.
Contact an Experienced Family Law Attorney
If you or a loved one is involved with issues regarding spousal support, or other matters of Family Law, contact attorney Joseph D. Lento today.