Alimony in Maryland

Since I broached the scary topic of ALIMONY last week, I thought we’d might as well continue down the haunted trail and address all our fears once and for all. Consider it Fear Therapy!

Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions that separating spouses have when it comes to alimony is that it is awarded as a matter of right in most cases, especially where one spouse earns significantly more than the other. I have lost count of the number of clients that have come to an initial consultation expressing certainty about either their entitlement to receive alimony as the financially subordinate spouse or their requirement to pay alimony as the financially dominant spouse. This misconception which leaves some clients buoyant and others completely dispirited is the subject of this week’s discussion.

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Question: If one spouse earns more money than the other spouse, is the lower-earning spouse entitled to alimony?

Answer: Not necessarily. While the court will consider disparity of income as a factor in deciding alimony; it is not the only factor to be considered.

The court will also consider the ability of the spouse to be self-supporting as well as the time needed for the spouse to find suitable employment. For example, a spouse that has been unemployed or underemployed for some time by agreement of the parties is not likely to suddenly be stripped of all financial support of a former spouse if to do so would pose an unfair hardship on the party that has been out of the workforce.

In addition, the court will consider the standard of living that the parties maintained during the marriage. The court does not intend that upon divorce, one party will be living in the “lap of luxury” while the other is eking out a “hand to mouth” existence when the parties enjoyed an upper middle class lifestyle during the marriage. On the other hand, the court does not expect that parties will have equal incomes/lifestyles post-divorce.

Also, the duration of the marriage is an important factor. A couple that has been married for just a few years with both parties working prior to (and especially during) the marriage should not have high hopes or great fears, depending on your perspective, that an alimony award is likely.

Moreover, the contributions (both monetary and non-monetary) the low-earning spouse made to the family will be considered. For example, if a spouse stayed at home to care for the parties’ children and therefore earned less income, the court will factor in that childcare as a contribution weighing in favor of alimony for that spouse.

Fault for the breakdown of the marriage is also considered by the court in deciding alimony. Certainly a spouse that blows up a marriage through infidelity, abusive conduct and other unreasonable and unacceptable behavior should not expect that he/she can walk away from the carnage without any consequence. While the consequence may not necessarily show up in an alimony award it may show up as a monetary award (a topic of a future posting).

The age and health of the parties, the ability of the financially dominant spouse to pay alimony, any agreements, other financial resources and obligations of the parties, retirement benefits available to the parties, are all factors Maryland courts will consider when deciding what, if any, alimony should be awarded and for what length of time.

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Unlike child support, there is no magic formula that Maryland courts must adhere to when deciding alimony. So long as the court considers all of the factors that are outlined above, the court is well within its discretion to assign whatever weight he/she deems appropriate to the individual factors.

Hopefully, understanding that alimony is not automatic and doesn’t hinge on a single fact tempers some of the enthusiasm of some and sheer dread of others so frequently associated with the issue.

Final Thought: A review of Maryland case law on the subject of alimony makes it clear that alimony when awarded is not intended as a lifetime pension but rather as a bridge to financial independence.