Alimony: The Basics

It seems that the differences between alimony and child support frequently need to be explained. Alimony is distinct from child support, which calls upon the obligation of parents for the support of minor children, based on their ability to pay. Both alimony and child support can be awarded in every US state court in connection with a divorce, although the formulas and legal standards differ widely.  The Texas Family Law Code grants alimony, for example, in very limited circumstances; “other States (think ‘California’) are much more pro-alimony,” notes a Houston-based divorce attorney.

The Historical Antecedents  of Alimony

Alimony has an abiding history found in ancient legal text and Jewish Law which dictates that the conditions be drawn up in a written document at the time of marriage. It was meant to stipulate financial obligations of the husband whether the marriage ended in divorce or by death. Acting as guardians against the impoverishment of women, rabbis went so far as to decree that in the event this documentation was lost, the married couple could not even live together until this provision was restored in the form of a new contract.

The etymology of the term alimony derives from the Latin word alimonia, a rule of sustenance to assure the wife’s necessities of food, clothing, lodging and other needs after divorce. Fast forward to our modern societal influences where divorce had become much more liberalized with cause being linked to fault and eventually no-fault divorce leading to changes in alimony. Now you will find that it is defined as an allowance for support paid by a spouse to his or her former spouse as part of a divorce settlement. It was in 1979 that gender bias came to an end when the U.S. Supreme Court amended the limitation to husbands allowing for a wife that may be wealthier than her husband.

While not many states have alimony laws on the books, courts are left to decide based on case law and precedent. Alimony is considered maintenance or spousal support. It is based on the premise that either spouse has an absolute obligation to support each other during a marriage or civil union, (the common-law marriage) as well as continuation of this support after separation or divorce.

Child Support: The Basics

All states hold that the “best interest of the child” must come first before all other concerns. At least all 50 states and Puerto Rico have adopted guidelines for paying child support, largely due to the Family Support Act of 1988 which provisions federal funding for child support enforcement. Child support will end as the child is emancipated, or comes of age and under the law is considered self supporting.

Further distinctions between alimony and child support are the tax liabilities. The parent responsible for child support payments pays the taxes on those funds whereas the spouse receiving alimony is allowed to deduct these funds from the gross income.

There are practical methods in place for recovery of support, such as reporting the amount due to a collection agency and both alimony and child support are not discharged in the event of a bankruptcy. They can share a contentious nature, often the result of painful separation, but the more the parties can come together with information, the less trying the experience.

Peter Wendt is a writer and researcher living in Austin, Texas.