How is the Amount of Alimony Determined?

Divorce proceedings include the settlement of many issues between the parting couple. One issue is alimony, an allowance authorized by law for one spouse to receive from the other for financial support.

At one time, courts used alimony as a punishment, ordering a husband guilty of marital fault to pay alimony to the innocent wife. Today, courts often refer to alimony as spousal support and award it based on need and ability to pay, not on gender or as a punitive measure. Another alimony issue is compensation when one spouse supported the other through graduate or professional school.

Mississippi law defines two types of alimony, lump sum and periodic payment. Lump sum alimony is a fixed and final dollar amount paid either in a single payment or over a period of time. The court cannot later modify the amount, nor does the death or remarriage of either spouse affect it. Periodic payment alimony is subject to modification and ceases at the death of either spouse or the remarriage or co-habitation of the receiving spouse.

Regardless of the type of alimony selected, the court must state a specific amount. The judge takes several factors into account when deciding the alimony award. These include the health and earning capacities of the husband and the wife, all sources of income of both parties, the reasonable needs of the wife and the child or children, the necessary living expenses of the husband, and the estimated income taxes each party pays. The judge will also consider other related issues and circumstances presented in evidence.

The judge strives to set an alimony amount that will provide the receiving spouse with approximately the same standard of living as experienced in the marriage. This gives the court a large degree of discretion. For example, if the receiving spouse was the defendant in the divorce suit, that does not prevent the court from awarding alimony. However, the amount must be reasonable, and that spouse must be almost destitute without those funds. The court also recognizes that the paying spouse has the right to live as normal a life as possible and maintain a decent standard of living.

The husband or wife may petition the court to modify the amount of periodic payment alimony. Several reasons could prompt such a request. However, a paying spouse may not purposefully change his or her financial condition (i.e., quit a job) to seek modification and avoid paying alimony. The court will recognize, however, special hardship or emergency situations and relieve the paying spouse from that obligation or reduce the alimony payments.

The court has several options if the paying spouse fails to pay alimony. The judge may issue a contempt of court ruling against the paying spouse, require the posting of a ne exeat bond, obtain a lien on that spouse's property or garnish the person's salary. The receiving spouse should keep detailed records of all payments in case action is necessary to recover unpaid alimony.

With the norm today being two-income families rather than one spouse's financial dependence upon the other, alimony's purpose has evolved. The goal is for both parties to maintain their standards of living following a marriage's end.