| Read Time: 3 minutes | Family Law
Difference Between Alimony vs. Spousal Support

Although few laws use the term alimony anymore, it remains part of everyday language. And, if laws do not use the word alimony, what do they call payments from one former spouse to another? In California, the term is “spousal support.” But is there a difference between alimony vs. spousal support? Generally, spousal support is the modern term for what we historically called alimony. 

For help understanding, negotiating, modifying, or enforcing spousal support, reach out to Pakpour Banks LLP. We will fight to defend and uphold your rights while seeking cooperation and adaptability when possible. Our experienced, compassionate attorneys understand how important your time and money are, and we care more about ensuring we help than earning every last dime. 

What Was Alimony, Historically?

Alimony, the root of which refers to concepts of sustenance and support, has existed in some form for centuries. Although alimony has varied over the years, it historically involved compensation from one former spouse to the other in specific circumstances.

Early Alimony

In early U.S. law, alimony laws typically authorized payments from a former husband to his former wife. If the husband could afford them, alimony payments could be obligatory and permanent. Even in the rare case that a wife earned more than her husband, he could not request alimony. Historical realities regarding women’s limited legal and property rights underpinned the gender-based distinctions in this rule. 

At that time, no-fault divorces did not exist, and the law tied alimony to fault. A husband legally at fault for the divorce may have to pay. But he may not have to pay if his wife was legally at fault. 

Changing Law and Values

As times changed, we began to expand women’s individual rights, separate from their husbands. States began introducing no-fault divorces, complicating fault-based alimony rules. The term spousal support came into usage to mean non-automatic payments from one former spouse to the other. 

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that alimony statutes limited to husbands supporting wives violated the U.S. Constitution. Since then, the concept of spousal support has slowly replaced alimony in many places.

What Is Spousal Support in California?

Spousal support refers to payments from one spouse to another during or after a divorce. When deciding whether to award spousal support, California courts consider many factors, like:

  • Each spouse’s earning capacity, considering their skills, the job market, the time and expense required to learn those skills, the necessity of learning new skills, and any periods of unemployment related to homemaking;
  • Whether and how much each spouse contributed to the other’s education, training, and career;
  • The spouse’s ability to pay;
  • Each spouse’s needs relative to the standard of living established during the marriage;
  • Each spouse’s debts and assets;
  • The length of the marriage;
  • The needs of any dependent children;
  • Each spouse’s age and relative health;
  • Whether there was a history of domestic violence;
  • Potential tax consequences; and
  • The relative burdens the divorce imposes on each spouse.

Spousal support should allow the supported spouse to become self-supporting reasonably soon. 

Is Spousal Support the Same As Alimony?

To the extent the word “alimony” is not gender-specific, alimony and spousal support may be used interchangeably. However, historical distinctions and modern usages can distinguish the two.

Alimony vs. Spousal Support 

Historically, alimony:

  • Was tied to fault,
  • Could only flow from husband to wife, and
  • Was awarded based on fault and ability to pay.

Spousal support, in contrast, is:

  • Unrelated to fault,
  • Unlimited by gender of the spouse, and
  • Awarded based on several factors.

So, although you may use the words interchangeably, alimony and spousal support can be distinguished as historical concepts.

California law almost exclusively refers to spousal support. Yet, a handful of provisions still use the term alimony. While alimony generally means the same thing as spousal support, consult a lawyer if in doubt about any particular reference to alimony.

Modern Use of “Alimony”

Because of its historical use, many state and federal laws still use “alimony.” For example, until 2017, the Internal Revenue Code (IRC) authorized a tax deduction for “alimony or separate maintenance.” 

Some states, the arbiters of family law, use different terms to refer to the historical concept of alimony. Along with spousal support, some states use “spousal maintenance” or  “separate maintenance.”

Some states even distinguish between spousal support and alimony. For example, in Pennsylvania, alimony includes payments made during the divorce process (“alimony pendente lite”) and after the divorce is finalized (“alimony”). Spousal support includes support obligations during the marriage, including during separation preceding divorce proceedings.

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Request, Modify, or End Spousal Support

If you are considering or involved in a divorce, Pakpour Banks LLP can provide our guidance related to spousal support. We can help you request, negotiate for, or argue against spousal support. If you already have a spousal support order, we can help you fight to modify, enforce, or end it, depending on what you need. Contact us to discuss your options.

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Brian enters the family law profession with a refreshing approach to these proceedings: heal families; don’t destroy them. In some cases, this means the family is going to look different than it did before. In other cases, this means a new family is created where there was none before. Either way, individuals should leave family court knowing their voices were heard, and with healthy attitudes about themselves and those they love.

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