Pennsylvania Divorce Law – Alimony

What is Alimony?

One of the most common questions that an individual going through a divorce in Bucks County, PA has is whether he or she will have to pay alimony or receive alimony. The answer depends on the particular facts and circumstances of the case.

In a Pennsylvania divorce matter, the court typically focuses on the following three factors in deciding whether to enter an alimony award: (1) the reasonable needs of the parties, (2) the lifestyle/standard of living established by the parties during the marriage, and (3) the payor’s ability to pay.  An alimony award is not a punitive measure.  Rather, alimony is awarded to ensure that an individual who cannot support himself or herself through appropriate employment will have enough financial support to meet his or her reasonable needs.

Under the Pennsylvania Domestic Relations Code, specifically Section 3701, an alimony award is discretionary, and the court awards alimony only to the extent that such an award is reasonable and necessary. Under Section 3701, there are 17 factors which Pennsylvania family court judges must consider when determining the nature, amount and duration of alimony. They include factors such as:

  • the relative earnings and earning capacities of the parties;
  • the duration of the marriage;
  • the contribution by one party to the education, training or increased earning power of the other party;
  • the standard of living of the parties established during the marriage;
  • the relative assets and liabilities of the parties;
  • the property brought to the marriage by either party; and
  • whether the party lacks sufficient property (including property received pursuant to equitable distribution) to provide for such party’s reasonable needs.

As indicated by the last factor set forth above, alimony awards often depend on the division of marital property accomplished pursuant to equitable distribution. The two (alimony and equitable distribution) are intertwined and considered in conjunction with each other.    For example, a spouse who receives a larger share of the marital estate may receive a lesser amount of alimony/shorter duration of alimony; alternatively, in a 50/50 case, the income inferior spouse may receive alimony in an increased amount and for a prolonged term.

In terms of the amount, Pennsylvania law does not specify the amount of alimony an individual would receive if awarded alimony, so different counties have developed different practices.  In Bucks County, for instance, family law judges often rely on the Pennsylvania Support Guidelines when determining the amount of alimony to award.  In Philadelphia County, judges consider each party’s monthly income and actual monthly expenses, performing an in-depth analysis of same.

For more information about alimony, read Alimony in Bucks County Divorce Cases – How long? How much? How come?

Amending or Modifying an Alimony Award After the Divorce is Final

Alimony often remains an issue even after the divorce has been finalized. Petitions to Modify Alimony are quite common in the months and years after a divorce has been finalized. Under Section 3701, courts may modify an alimony award when there has been a change in circumstances of a substantial and continuing nature, and parties often provide for such a modification provision in negotiated contracts as well. Below are two common alimony issues that arise after finalization of the divorce.

Intentionally Reducing Earnings

An alimony award depends in part on the paying party’s ability to pay and the disparity in the parties’ earnings/earning capacities.  Therefore, what happens when a party declines a promotion or takes a lower paying job? Under Pennsylvania divorce law, a paying party cannot unilaterally reduce his or her earnings/earning potential, thereby jeopardizing the other party’s right to alimony and artificially reducing or eliminating the earning disparity. A paying party’s Petition to Modify Alimony under these circumstances likely would be denied, and the alimony award would remain in place as originally awarded.

Terminating Alimony Due to Co-Habitation of the Receiving Spouse

Under Section 3701, remarriage of the receiving party terminates the alimony obligation of the paying party. However, what happens when the receiving party moves in or co-habitates with an unrelated individual of the opposite sex? Section 3706 specifically addresses this situation and provides that the receiving party loses his or her entitlement to receive alimony.  Even though this is the state of the law, the paying party cannot simply cease making alimony payments and first must obtain a court order terminating his or her obligation to pay alimony.