The Law Forum: Understanding spousal support

When spouses are separating or divorcing, questions regarding alimony and spousal support often arise. Many people assume that alimony and spousal support are interchangeable terms. In fact, they are not.

What is Spousal Support?

By definition, spousal support is support which one spouse pays to the other spouse after they have separated, but before they have divorced. In contrast, alimony is support which one spouse pays to the other spouse for a period of time after they have divorced.

At this time, spousal support will be discussed, while alimony will be discussed at a later date.

Spousal Support Conditions

For a spouse to be entitled to spousal support, a number of conditions must be met.

  1. First, the spouse seeking support must generally earn less than the other spouse. If the spouse seeking support does not earn less than the other spouse, the spouse seeking support will not usually be awarded support.
  2. Second, if the spouse seeking support is the one who left the marital home at the time of separation, that spouse will not generally be awarded support unless it is demonstrated the spouse remaining in the home is guilty of significant fault.


On the other hand, if the spouse seeking spousal support is the one who remains in the marital home at the time of separation, support will be awarded to that spouse unless he or she is guilty of significant fault.

Guilty of a Signigcant Fault

Naturally, the question which therefore arises is whether a spouse is guilty of significant fault. Certainly, significant fault exists if a spouse engages in physical abuse, adultery, substance abuse or criminal conduct. Various courts have also said that emotional abuse, irresponsible use of finances, and other grossly unreasonable actions will constitute significant fault.

Needless to say, if it is questionable whether significant fault exists, a judge will decide this issue.

Determining the Amount of Support

Assuming that a spouse qualifies for spousal support, the next step is determining the amount of support to be awarded. Generally, the amount will be 40 percent of the difference in the spouses’ net incomes if they have no children.

On the other hand, if the spouses have children, a much more complicated formula is utilized. In fact, this more complicated formula may result in no spousal support being awarded if the net income of the spouse seeking support is only slighter less than the other spouse’s net income. Whether or not spousal support is available in these situations can only be determined upon thorough review of your circumstances.

The spouse who is receiving support may also be able to compel the other spouse to maintain health insurance coverage on both spouses, and to contribute to the payment of uncovered medical expenses.

The court procedures necessary to pursue a spousal support claim are not overly complicated. Initially, a written court complaint must be filed. The claim then proceeds through the local domestic relations office and may ultimately result in a hearing before a domestic relations support master.

Coyle is an attorney with the Buzgon Davis Law Offices, 525 South Eighth Street, Lebanon, Pennsylvania. His column appears the first Tuesday of each month.

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