When Permanent Alimony Makes Sense

States have adopted sensible, multipart tests to help judges decide whether alimony is called for.

Q. What do you think about the concept of permanent alimony—a flow of support payments from one former spouse to the other until one dies or the recipient remarries?

A. Permanent alimony is getting pretty rare, and rightly so in an era of approximate equality between the sexes in education and earnings potential. And it should always be appealable when circumstances change. But permanent alimony is still appropriate in some divorce cases.

Among the factors that, singly or in combination, can justify permanent alimony are: The marriage was lengthy (30 or more years); the financially dependent spouse is in his or her fifties or older; the ex-spouse is in poor health, handicapped or has limited earning capacity, due to modest education and job skills; the ex-spouse financially supported the primary breadwinner early in the marriage (say, by helping to pay tuition); or one spouse gave up a career to support the other’s career and/or raise the children full-time.

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Many states have adopted sensible, multipart tests to help judges decide whether alimony is called for, and if so, for how long. For example, none would be awarded after a brief marriage (say, less than five years) before which each spouse supported himself or herself financially and is still capable of doing so. (I’m not talking about child support, to which both former spouses should contribute significantly, either with financial payments, unpaid child-rearing or both.)

If one spouse’s job skills became rusty from disuse over many years (or were nonexistent), judges often award alimony for varying time periods to enable the once-dependent spouse to become self-supporting through education and job training. This is grimly called rehabilitative alimony, and some states cap the duration at half the length of the marriage or less.

Many states also permit alimony to end when the dependent spouse remarries or begins living with someone who has sufficient earnings. And judges in some states will suspend alimony when the paying ex-spouse retires, depending on the financial situation of each spouse.

Have a money-and-ethics question you’d like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

Knight Kiplinger
Editor Emeritus, Kiplinger

Knight came to Kiplinger in 1983, after 13 years in daily newspaper journalism, the last six as Washington bureau chief of the Ottaway Newspapers division of Dow Jones. A frequent speaker before business audiences, he has appeared on NPR, CNN, Fox and CNBC, among other networks. Knight contributes to the weekly Kiplinger Letter.