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Ask the Attorney: What's Up with Financial Support During Divorce?

Q: I’m thinking about getting a divorce and need to plan my finances. Are spousal support and alimony the same thing?

Understanding the differences between the various types of financial support available to a spouse during a divorce proceeding can be a headache. 

For clients unfamiliar with the divorce process, figuring out what distinguishes one kind of support from another can be downright bewildering.

Aside from child support, which is outside the scope of this article, there are three kinds of financial support a spouse can claim during a divorce: spousal support, alimony pendente lite and alimony. Although there are similarities between all three, each of these options differs in essential details.

Spousal support exists to ensure that a dependent spouse has a reasonable living allowance during a divorce. If it is financially possible, the dependent spouse is entitled to a level of support that provides for the same standard of living enjoyed during the marriage. The duty to provide spousal support arises from the marriage itself, and hence it ends at the same time the marriage ends. 

Once the divorce is final, neither former spouse is entitled to spousal support from the other.

Like spousal support, alimony pendente lite provides a spouse with financial support over the course of the divorce; however, unlike spousal support, the purpose of alimony pendente lite is to put the two spouses on equal financial footing with regard to their ability to pursue or defend the divorce. 

Because it is linked to the underlying litigation, an award of alimony pendente lite can last only as long as it takes to fully prosecute a divorce to its final resolution.

Alimony, on the other hand, allows a former spouse to receive financial support after the end of the marriage. There can be no award of alimony without a divorce decree. The obligation to pay alimony can be indefinite or last for a specific duration, but it terminates as soon as the recipient either remarries or moves in with an unrelated member of the opposite sex.

Failure to distinguish between these three types of financial support for divorcingspouses can lead to a number of pitfalls.  For example, a spouse can seek spousal support at any time, but may only request alimony pendente lite when an action for divorce is pending. Acts of marital misconduct, such as adultery or abuse, can make a spouse ineligible to receive spousal support, and can defeat an otherwise viable claim for alimony. 

Conversely, allegations of marital misconduct have no bearing on awards of alimony pendente lite. Spouses receiving or seeking alimony should be aware that plans to remarry or move in with another lover will either end alimony payments, or preclude alimony entirely.

Assuming there are no lurking traps that jeopardize a spouse’s eligibility to receive support, courts engage in a similar analysis to decide if a spouse is entitled to support, regardless of which type of support is requested.  To figure out whether a support award is appropriate, and if so at what level, courts focus primarily on a spouse’s financial need. 

Following an established set of guidelines, courts scrutinize in detail each spouse’s actual net earnings, earning potential and other sources of cash flow to determine what level of support, if any, is warranted by the circumstances.

(This article is intended as a discussion of legal topics that are often confusing to many laypeople; it is not, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. Attorney Jesse White is licensed to practice solely in Pennsylvania and any information discussed relates solely to Pennsylvania law. If you have a question for the attorney, contact The Law Office of Jesse White in Cecil at 724-743-4444 for or visit www.jessewhitelaw.com.)

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