Alimony in Bucks County Divorce Cases – How long? How much? How come?

Alimony in Bucks County, Pennsylvania Divorce Cases

Almost all divorcing clients who come to our Doylestown and Newtown divorce law offices ask about alimony in some manner:

  • Is there alimony in Pennsylvania?
  • Will I be paying/receiving alimony? How much will it be? How long will it last?
  • Does it matter that I pay alimony to a prior spouse?
  • Are there circumstances that will result in termination of an alimony award?
  • And the list goes on.

Yes, there is alimony in Pennsylvania divorce cases, but that is just one simple answer to only one of the questions of the sort mentioned above. Unlike child supportspousal support and alimony pendente lite, all of which are governed by the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines (which offer a substantial amount of direction), alimony in PA is governed by statutes, namely those contained within Chapter 37 of the Divorce Code, and these statutes offer few concrete answers.

Factors in Determining Alimony in Pennsylvania

As opposed to setting forth a concrete formula for determining the amount and duration of an alimony obligation, section 3701 includes the following:

  • A general rule that allows a court to enter an alimony award, “as it deems reasonable,” and “only if it finds that alimony is necessary”;
  • Seventeen (17) relevant factors for a court to consider in determining whether alimony is “necessary” and what the “nature, amount, duration and manner of payment of alimony” should be;
  • Confirmation that alimony may be awarded “for a definite or an indefinite period of time which is reasonable under the circumstances”; and
  • An allowance for an alimony award to be modified “upon changed circumstances of either party of a substantial and continuing nature,” as a result of which the alimony order may be modified, suspended, terminated or reinstated.

As it may be apparent, a review of section 3701 raises more questions than it answers.

  • When is alimony “necessary”?
  • How will the court consider and weigh the seventeen (17) factors in determining the amount of the payment?
  • What warrants an alimony award for a “definite” period of time as opposed to an “indefinite” period of time?
  • What changed circumstances are significant enough to be of a “substantial and continuing nature”?

Moreover, in addition to being rather ambiguous, section 3701 fails to alert one to other key considerations. For instance, if a spouse in Pennsylvania has been paying spousal support/alimony pendente lite to the other spouse, pending the divorce, the duration of said payments will be factored in when determining the duration of alimony. Therefore, if a marriage in Pennsylvania was of 6 years in duration, and a spouse has been paying spousal support for 2 years, then it is possible that there will be no alimony award, whereas there likely would be an alimony award, if no spousal support was paid.

When Alimony Can Be Terminated in Pennsylvania

Although it may be common knowledge that alimony terminates upon remarriage, section 3706 also provides for an alimony award to terminate upon cohabitation of the party receiving alimony. Oftentimes, this section poses a concern for Pennsylvania divorce clients who plan to move in with family members, as a result of the financial impact of a divorce. However, section 3706 is not meant to address this type of “cohabitation”; rather, it only applies to cohabitation “with a person of the opposite sex who is not a member of the family of the petitioner within the degrees of consanguinity.”

How Death Affects Alimony in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, alimony also may terminate upon death of the party paying alimony, pursuant to section 3707. In cases where a party relies substantially on the receipt of alimony payments, this provision can pose a significant problem, which is why it may be necessary to secure the alimony obligation by way of a life insurance policy on the party paying alimony. This type of arrangement must be secured prior to entry of the divorce decree, and at the time that the alimony award is entered. Otherwise, absent agreement of the parties, alimony will terminate upon the death of the party paying alimony, potentially leaving the receiving party in a precarious financial situation.

Complicating matters further is the fact that the statutory language of Pennsylvania’s alimony law does not apply to agreements reached between the parties. For example, if the parties fail to specify that alimony is modifiable, it will be non-modifiable. Consequently, even if the paying party loses his/her job, or if the receiving party obtains employment, the alimony amount would remain the same, which would be an unfair and likely unintended result. Likewise, changes in child support arrangements would not result in a change of the alimony amount, which could leave a receiving party with half of the support that he/she could be receiving. The same logic applies to termination provisions. If the parties state that alimony is terminable upon remarriage, then it would not terminate upon cohabitation or death, with the latter resulting in significant negative tax consequences for the paying party. In sum, unless the court is entering the alimony award, everything needs to be spelled out in great detail in order to ensure that the parties get that for which they are bargaining.

Attorneys who specialize in family law know that Pennsylvania courts in the various counties, such as Bucks County, have developed rules of thumb to simplify the alimony issues. There are ratios that aid courts in determining the duration of alimony warranted by a marriage of a certain length; there is reliance on the more straightforward Pennsylvania Support Guidelines to provide for a consistent manner in which to calculate the amount of the alimony award; and there is targeted consideration of the equitable distribution settlement and how that intertwines with the alimony award (with a greater equitable distribution award resulting in less necessity for an alimony award of longer duration). Overall, for both the paying and receiving parties, alimony is a crucial issue that must be dealt with carefully. Otherwise, both parties may end up with an unfavorable result.