How Long Do You Have to Pay Alimony?

Updated January 23, 2024
4 min read

In the United States, alimony is referred to as spousal financial support. Courts determine how long alimony lasts and how much one spouse needs to pay the other spouse. Alimony helps the partner who made less money during the marriage maintain the lifestyle they were used to.

The length of alimony varies by state. Learn about the different types of alimony the court can award and find the answers to critical questions regarding alimony in this guide. 

Types of Alimony

There are five common types of alimony adhering to the fundamental question: do you have to pay alimony? The answer is positive if you are going through a divorce, and you should divide your personal and joint assets with your spouse. The length of alimony depends on the circumstances of your divorce, your and your spouse’s financial capabilities, and the final court decision.

  1. Permanent alimony
    In most cases, alimony continues until the receiving spouse remarries or passes away. Does alimony last forever? For this type of alimony, it is absolutely possible.

  2. Temporary alimony
    How long is alimony in this case? As long as the divorce is pending, the judge will order this type of alimony. In the final judgment, temporary alimony transitions to permanent alimony if permanent alimony is awarded.

  3. Reimbursement alimony
    When an ex-spouse lends money to the receiving spouse for college education or vocational training, and the receiving spouse’s earning power increases because of the training, the receiving spouse may have to pay back what was borrowed. In this case, the length of alimony is limited.

  4. Rehabilitative alimony
    How long alimony lasts depends on the receiving spouse, who needs time to recover financially and become self-sufficient.

  5. Bridge-the-gap
    Financial assistance is awarded for a specific period of time so that the recipient can learn a skill or gain the education necessary to increase their earning potential.

How Long After Divorce Can You Get Alimony?

So, when does a spouse have to pay alimony? Alimony is usually paid monthly, but it can also be paid in one lump sum. Your alimony payment schedule depends on how the court sets it up. You and your ex-spouse can negotiate the time limit, or the court can decide. Usually, alimony is paid until one spouse remarries or one spouse dies. It is rare to terminate alimony unless both parties agree.

If you are ordered to pay alimony, a judge will also consider how long you were married. Usually, the longer the marriage, the longer the alimony must be paid. If couples are unsure about the rules in their state, they should speak to a family law attorney and associates.

When does alimony end a short marriage? Alimony will have a limited duration – if it is given at all. If you have been married for more than ten years, it gets more complicated, and you may be forced to pay alimony indefinitely unless the court modifies it. Here are a few examples of when the court may modify an alimony judgment:

  • Changing the needs of the recipient

  • The ability of the ex-spouse to pay alimony

  • Each spouse’s age

  • Each spouse’s health factors

If any of the factors listed above cause you to want to change the alimony agreement, contact an attorney to see if you have a legitimate basis for modifying the alimony judgment.

Short-Term Marriage

The final determination of alimony will vary by the case, and each state has different guidelines. However, for short-term marriages, alimony will often be awarded for approximately half the time the marriage existed. So, for example, if you were married for three years, the alimony award is likely to be payable for about one and a half years. 

Long-Term Marriage

How long does spouse support last for a long-term marriage? If you were married for 10-20 years, typically, you will have to pay alimony for about 60 to 70 percent of the length of your marriage. So, for example, if you were married for 20 years, your alimony will likely last between 12 and 14 years. It can, however, differ considerably based on your particular circumstances and the judge overseeing your case.

Marriages lasting 20 years or more are more likely to receive permanent alimony. Therefore, you should expect to support your ex until retirement, remarriage, or death.

When You're the One

To pay alimony

How long does a person have to pay alimony? You don’t always have to leave it up to the judge. It’s a surefire way to increase the cost of divorce to go to trial with your spouse on any dispute. A lawyer is usually necessary to guide you through the trial process, including gathering the right kind of evidence and preparing for the hearing.

Insight

You and your spouse may agree on alimony as part of the divorce decree or judgment. If alimony payments can be changed, you can agree on temporary support payments. Divorce mediation negotiations outside of court guided by a neutral third party can be helpful if you’re having trouble reaching an agreement. You can even mediate online. When you can settle your divorce issues on your own, you can save on lawyers’ fees and reach a quicker resolution.

To receive alimony

As long as you were financially dependent on your spouse during the marriage, the judge can order your spouse to pay you alimony. The following is evidence that you were “dependent”:

  • Your spouse supported you financially.

  • Your property (including marital property and material belongings) is not enough to meet your needs. Your health prevents you from working, or you can’t work because you care for a child whose condition makes it “inappropriate” for you to work.

There are still many factors a judge will take into account when deciding whether you will get alimony and how much. 

How Is the Amount of Alimony Calculated?

Usually, state laws specify the factors judges take into account when deciding whether or not to award alimony, as well as the amount and duration of the payments. The rules for temporary support during a divorce differ from those for post-divorce alimony.

After a divorce, judges generally must decide whether one spouse needs support and whether the other spouse is able to pay that support. When making that decision, judges should consider a number of factors, such as:

  • During the marriage, the standard of living of the couple, and their ability to maintain a similar lifestyle after their divorce

  • Income, assets, and debts of each spouse

  • The amount each spouse will receive when their property is divided

  • Whether one spouse was unemployed for a period of time while caring for the family and/or parenting minor children (biological or through adoption) and therefore has a lower earning capacity due to a lack of employability and transferable skills

  • Marriage length

  • Age and health of each spouse, and any disability

  • A spouse’s efforts to train, educate, or advance their career

  • Any other factors the judge deems fair

When deciding whether to award alimony, many states allow (or even require) judges to take into account any history of domestic violence or other misconduct by one or both spouses. However, there is one factor that is generally ignored: which spouse filed for divorce first. When you file for divorce, you have the right to request spousal support regardless of salary. If your spouse initiated the divorce, you might ask for alimony (usually by filing a “counter” petition or complaint).

If you’re not incredibly wealthy, you probably know that it’s nearly impossible to maintain separate households at the same standard of living as a couple did while married and living together. This is particularly true now that more and more divorced parents share custody of their children.

As a result, both former spouses will likely have to adjust after divorce. The judge might determine that if you’re the one ordered to pay support, you could earn more than you do now. If you only work part-time, you may need to look for a full-time position at a new workplace.

Conclusion

A final divorce judgment or other court order may include an agreement between you and your ex on the issue of spousal support. You may go back to court if your ex is not paying court-ordered spousal support. When you file a “show cause” motion, the court will hold a hearing to determine why your ex isn’t following the terms of the order and what the judge can do to enforce it.

Various tools are available to the family law courts to enforce alimony payments, and a deadbeat spouse can face fines and penalties for not following an alimony order. If the spouse has missed alimony payments, the judge may order him or her to make them up retroactively.

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