Alimony, also known as maintenance or spousal support, refers to payments made by one spouse to the other after a couple divorces. These payments are for living expenses and/or child support. Payments usually end upon the death of either spouse, or a date spelled out in a divorce decree or settlement agreement. They may also end if the spouse receiving alimony remarries or moves in with a new partner.

Figuring out your alimony payments

The amount of alimony you will pay depends on many factors, including state law, which varies. An attorney in your state who specializes in divorce should be able to give you an estimate of how much alimony you are likely to pay. In general, your alimony payments will be set depending on a number of factors: your age and health, your income, your spouse's income and other assets, the length of the marriage, whether one spouse stayed home to raise children for a time, who will have custody of the children (if applicable), and what assets each spouse is keeping, among other factors.

What alimony can mean for your taxes

Alimony payments are tax deductible for the person making the payments and are taxable income for the recipient. Be sure to consider the tax impact when calculating the true cost of your alimony payments. To qualify as tax-deductible alimony, the payments must be in cash and must be spelled out in a written divorce agreement or decree. You can't file a joint tax return or be living together and claim a tax deduction for alimony.

Failure to pay alimony (alimony enforcement)

The consequences of failing to pay the alimony outlined in your divorce vary from state to state. However, if you do not pay alimony, your spouse can sue to get the payments. You could be held in contempt of court (which is willful disobedience of the court's rules or orders) or even jailed. You also may have to pay your spouse's court and attorney costs related to pursuing the alimony payments. For instance, the IRS may deduct unpaid child support from any tax refund or overpayment owed you and give the money to your spouse instead, but won't take the same action for unpaid alimony.

Additional resources:

Family Education - What is Maintenance (Alimony)?

Family Education - Alimony: Getting the Best Deal

DivorceInfo - Alimony (with state-by-state resource links)

Avvo's Family Law Resource Center

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Surviving Divorce (Alpha Books, 2002)