A woman in a long-term marriage who has been supported by her husband is usually entitled to receive alimony after a divorce. (The same goes for the less typical situation of a man supported by his wife.) Ideally, the amount of alimony should be enough to maintain the wife in the same lifestyle that she enjoyed during the marriage.
Recently, a woman in Ocean County filed in court for a divorce. She and her husband had been separated for a year. The woman’s name was Pamela.
At the time she filed for a divorce, she and her husband had been married for over 26 years. During that time, Pamela was mainly a homemaker and a caretaker for the couple’s two sons. Occasionally, she worked part-time but never made more than $18,000 a year.
Pamela’s husband James was the breadwinner of the family. He worked in car sales throughout the marriage. James’ income rose steadily. He made about $14,000 at the beginning of the marriage. By the time of the divorce filing, in 2008, he was earning in the mid-$40,000 range. This income enabled the couple to maintain a modest middle-class lifestyle.
In 2009, the year after the case started, James’ income spiked to $64,000. The next year was even better. He earned $76,000.
At trial, James argued that any alimony he paid should be based solely on what his income was while the parties were living together before the divorce was filed. After all, alimony is based on the marital standard of living. And the marriage was effectively over with the filing of the court case.
Pamela, of course, argued that she should share in her husband’s good fortune. If alimony was based solely on James’ pre-divorce income, there wouldn’t be enough money available to support her in the same lifestyle as during the marriage. After all, James’ income now had to stretch to support two households, not just one.
The Judge ruled for Pamela. In doing so, he conceded that there was a certain attractive simplicity to James’ claim. Nevertheless, the judge pointed out that James’ financial success, after the divorce was started, was grounded in the assistance he received from his wife during the marriage. Her contribution of time and effort freed up James’ time to advance his career. Eventually, he reaped the benefits, with an increased income
The judge’s ruling is not binding on future cases. Unless and until an appellate court rules on the question, alimony paying spouses can continue to make the same argument that James did. Perhaps another judge will rule differently. On the other hand, if you are the supported spouse in a divorce, you would want to urge your judge to follow the lead of the judge in Pamela’s case.
Another interesting question is whether an alimony-paying spouse like James, whose income, unlike James, has gone down after a divorce filing, could successfully use that fact to pay less alimony than he would otherwise have to. Time will tell. In the meantime, if you find yourself in that position, it certainly is worth a try.