Alimony: What Should I Expect to Pay After a Divorce?

Calculating alimony in a divorce is no easy task. Here's how to approach it.

The purpose of child support is straightforward. When two parents divorce, it’s important that the kids are taken care of financially. But alimony? There’s something about being tied to your ex through a series of monthly checks that makes things more, well, complicated..

Alimony is such an emotional issue,” says Mandy Walker, a divorce coach, mediator, and certified divorce financial analyst in Boulder, Colorado. “Especially if the recipient of the support is the same person who initiated the divorce in the first place.” And if your income is higher than your soon-to-be ex’s, you’ll want to think about what this divorce will cost you. Here, some questions to consider, so you can plan accordingly.

How Long Have You Been Married?

“Unless there is a valid prenuptial agreement that provides a separate agreement for alimony, in a marriage of only few years, any kind of long duration alimony award would be highly unusual,” says family law expert Bari Weinberger, certified matrimonial attorney and founder of Weinberger & Family Law Group of New Jersey. “In general, divorcing spouses can expect that alimony in a marriage of only a few years will be very limited, or not granted at all in the case of a brief marriage of two earners of around the same income level.”

The longer the marriage, the greater the spousal support. Courts generally look more seriously at cases of couples who have been together at least a decade. Although the exact formula varies state by state (and case by case), in many states “the number of years alimony is required to be paid cannot exceed the number of years the couple was married for, in marriages under 20 years in duration,” says Weinberger.

Do You Have a Variable Income?

In some jobs, what you make in a year goes up and down. A contractor, for instance, might build a bunch of homes one year, but very few the next. If your income changes year to year, the courts will likely take a five-year average to figure out what you make and what you may owe, says Walker.

Does Your Spouse Work?

If your spouse quit their job when you got married, some courts may require you to cover job retraining costs to help with re-entry into the workforce. “This is called rehabilitative alimony,” says Weinberger. “Even in a brief marriage, if your wife stepped back from a very competitive field to be a stay-at-home spouse, some kind of job retraining might be needed.”

Do You Have Young Kids?

In a short marriage, a stay-at-home spouse’s “income” may be calculated as if she worked 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job. In other words, this is the minimum she could be expected to make if she had to go out and get a job due to the divorce. “On the other hand, if you have super-young kids, the courts will take this into consideration as why a spouse is unable to get a basic job, and adjust the calculations accordingly,” says Walker. The reasoning: There is little reason for one spouse to go out and get a minimum wage job, only to then have to pay for a caretaker to watch the kids.

Did You Lose Your Job?

Let’s just get this out of the way: You cannot quit your job, move back in with your mom, and claim zero income. Nor can you decide to “retire” at the age of 40 and hope the courts reconsider the monthly alimony. However, “if the paying spouse loses his job or sees a decline in his business, he can go to court to file for a modification of his alimony obligation based on changed financial circumstances,” says Weinberger.

Finally, although the most common set-up has one spouse forking over money to the other in the form of monthly checks, it is possible to negotiate other types of payment. For instance, you might offer to buy your ex out of her half of the house or consider a redistribution of material goods like the family cars and maybe the private jet. “Sometimes, these arrangements allow for a cleaner break, and that’s good for the whole family,” says Walker.