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“You never realize how short a month is until you pay alimony.” — John Barrymore
One of the more common misconceptions about Pennsylvania divorce law has to do with alimony. Throughout my career, clients have asked me, “Is there alimony in Pennsylvania?” Happily for some and sadly for others the answer is yes, there is alimony in Pennsylvania.
Unlike spousal support and alimony pendente lite (courtspeak for temporary alimony, and often abbreviated as “APL”), which are usually calculated according to a guideline formula, alimony is much more dependent on the discretion of the court unless the divorcing spouses are able to reach an agreement.
The economic reality of marriage.
Unless the married couple has signed a prenuptial agreement that says neither spouse will be entitled to alimony, it is important to realize that the act of getting married does not just bind you and your spouse to each other, but also to the terms of the Pennsylvania Divorce Code. Marriage, under the Pennsylvania domestic relations law, is an act of becoming economically interdependent. Creating a marital union in Pennsylvania means that economically as well as personally, a “you” and a “me” become an “us.” One spouse often becomes economically dependent on the other during the course of a marriage, and Pennsylvania law offers economic protection to that spouse in the event of a separation. One spouse might be dependent on the other from staying home to raise the children or otherwise performing domestic services as a homemaker. Also, a spouse can become disabled, can be laid off and unable to find new employment at the same pay, or might simply be in a career that offers less income potential. An economically-dependent spouse may have sacrificed opportunities for job seniority or additional training, or may have worked to put the other spouse through school. Pennsylvania domestic relations law recognizes the reality of this, and the mission of the court is to do economic justice when a married couple separates and divorces. Alimony is one of the tools available to the judge assigned to the divorce case.
Seventeen factors to consider for an award of alimony in Pennsylvania.
There is no set formula to calculate the amount of alimony in Pennsylvania, the way spousal support or APL is calculated. Instead, there are — literally — seventeen factors that a judge is expected to take into account when deciding whether there will be alimony and (if so) how much, for how long. These factors include how long the marriage lasted until the date of final separation, what each spouse is capable of earning, whose ability to earn might be affected by taking care of the children, and each spouse’s relative health. It is easy to see that this gives a judge a very wide discretion. The good news about this is that the court has the power to create an alimony award that fits the actual needs and circumstances of both spouses. The bad news is that it is correspondingly hard to challenge alimony through appeal, because if the Superior Court decides that the judge was operating within his or her discretion, and that there is evidence enough to support the award, the alimony order will stand.
Does adultery prevent an award of alimony in Pennsylvania?
Marital misconduct — adultery, brutality, abandonment, etc. — is indeed one of the seventeen factors a court must consider before making an award of alimony to an economically-dependent spouse. However, it is only one of the seventeen, and you can expect the court to weigh a claim of adultery or another form of marital misconduct (as well as your spouse’s defenses) as part of the whole situation rather than viewing it exclusively in its own light. Also, divorce law in Pennsylvania specifically excludes marital misconduct occurring after the date of final separation when considering an award of alimony, unless one spouse has abused the other. This means that a separated spouse is free to be in a romantic relationship with another partner without penalty once the spouses have made their final separation.
How long does alimony last in Pennsylvania?
The duration of an alimony award depends on the circumstances of the case, and on the judge. A court has the authority and discretion to award alimony for a definite period (up to the remainder of a lifetime), or an indefinite period (i.e., open-ended and subject to later review). Lifetime alimony awards are very rare, but they do happen if the circumstances justify it. Awards of alimony remain within the discretion of the court to modify or terminate, if one of the former spouses is able to prove that there has been a change in circumstances of a substantial and continuing nature. Cohabitation and remarriage ordinarily will terminate alimony, as will the death of either spouse.
If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call me to set up a personal consultation. This blog will feature periodic updates. Consider subscribing! Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. I try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that I will not offer legal advice via the Internet.
Michael B. Greenstein
8012 Westmoreland Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15218