Of all the financial matters that have to be settled in a divorce, the question of alimony often mystifies people the most.
Alimony, strictly speaking, is dead, but it has returned in other forms. Here's some historical perspective to help you understand its evolution. Alimony was conceived many years ago when women rarely worked outside the home. It was the man's duty to support his spouse, even after divorce, for the rest of her life, or until she married another man who would take on the duty of her support.
In the 1980s, with the advances made by women in the workplace, there was a movement towards reform of alimony. It was thought that it should be replaced with "maintenance" or "rehabilitative maintenance." The idea here was that even though women had secured a foothold in the workplace, it was still often the case that wives had sacrificed both educational and career opportunities to care for their husbands, children, and homes. It was felt that women should receive maintenance for a period of time, depending on her individual circumstances, such as age, level of education, and ability to re-enter the workforce. This maintenance was supposed to help her "catch up." Two features of classic alimony -- the notion of lifetime payments if the wife did not remarry, and the notion that payments would stop if she did -- were both generally abandoned.
Today, the notion of "spousal support" predominates. Numerous studies conducted in the '80s and '90s showed that "rehabilitative maintenance" was not working as intended. Women were re-entering the workforce following divorce and, in some cases, earning impressive incomes, but change was slower than anticipated. These studies showed that, in general, women's economic situations declined after divorce while men's improved. With this evidence in hand, some correction was deemed necessary. Today, courts are returning to the idea of support, for much longer periods than had been the case. It is also notable that, in more and more cases, it is the wife who is paying support to the husband.
So how can you get some idea what to expect in a divorce these days? First, do your homework. Give your attorney as complete a record as you can of both spouses' educational, career, and earnings history for the entire time of the marriage. Let him or her know about any special circumstances. (For instance, are there health problems that would prevent an otherwise potentially high wage earner from taking a position commensurate with his or her education and experience? Do the children have special needs that would prevent someone from re-entering the workforce? Has either party received a substantial inheritance that enables him or her not to work for a living?)
Then, ask your attorney for the range of spousal support you can expect to be awarded by a court. Understand that there is no precise figure, no exact percentage. But your attorney should be able to tell you the range with a reasonable degree of certainty, both in terms of amount and duration, based on his or her experience, the cases in the law books, and the attitudes of the judges in your area.
With this information in hand, you are in a much better position to negotiate with your spouse and plan for your future after the divorce.
Theodore W. Grippo has been practicing family law for 23 years. He practices with Lindenbaum, Coffman, Kurlander, Brisky & Grippo in Chicago.