Alimony in Pennsylvania
“Paying alimony is like buying hay for a dead horse.” – Groucho Marx
Although the divorce rate in Pennsylvania is tied for the fifth lowest in the United States, at 9.5%, it is likely that at some point someone we know may go through a divorce. A marriage is like any relationship in life, of course, which means that it is never static and always dynamic. In a downturn of the relationship, the spouses may separate. And if a downturn becomes a permanent decision by either or both spouses, a divorce may become likely. In that situation, money – which is often a driver for marital difficulties in the first place – may become an issue.
With that in mind, let’s look at the three forms of spouse-to-spouse payments that exist under Pennsylvania law: spousal support, alimony pendente lite, and alimony. What makes one different from the others? Each depends upon the status of the spouses, namely whether they are pre-, during, or post-divorce.
If the spouses are still legally married, but no longer living as a marital unit, though neither spouse has filed a divorce complaint yet, then one of the spouses may consider filing for spousal support. One of the contractual duties that arises as a result of getting married is the duty to provide support to the other spouse. “Married persons are liable for the support of each other according to their respective abilities to provide support as provided by law.” See 23 Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes § 4321(1).
Under Pennsylvania law, there are two (2) prongs to an award of spousal support: First, is the person asking for spousal support the lower income earner? It makes sense that the higher-earning spouse cannot ask the Court for the lower-earning spouse to pay them money. Second, is the person asking for spousal support not the person who caused the separation between the spouses? Here, it makes sense that the person who causes the separation – either through abuse or infidelity, for example – should not be allowed to profit from their bad behavior by asking the Court to order the innocent spouse to pay them money.
If the spouses are still legally married, but no longer living as a marital unit, but now one of the spouses has filed a divorce complaint, the lower-earning spouse may consider filing for alimony pendente lite (called APL for short). This form of support differs from spousal support in that the Court does not inquire as to who caused the separation. In this scenario, the only question is: who is the higher-earning spouse and who is the lower-earning spouse? The answer to that two-part question will determine who pays APL to whom. Like water always flows downward, APL will always flow, or in other words be paid, by the higher-earning spouse to the lower-earning spouse. If ordered by the Court, APL will generally last for as long as the divorce litigation lasts, hence the Latin phrase pendente lite, though the Court may cap the APL at a period of time no longer than the marriage itself lasted or the Court may terminate it if it finds that the lower-earning spouse is intentionally holding-up the divorce for the purpose of prolonging their receipt of APL.
The final form of spouse-to-spouse payments is alimony. “Where a divorce decree has been entered, the court may allow alimony, as it deems reasonable, to either party only if it finds that alimony is necessary.” See 23 Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes § 3701(a). Many people may be surprised to find out that alimony exists under Pennsylvania law. That being said, however, it is largely disfavored by the courts, mainly for the reason that is embodied in the quote by Mr. Marx above. In other words, when a Court dissolves a marriage, it typically aims to cut all ties and connections between the former spouses, including something so transactional to be seemingly trivial, though for the paying spouse something so real, as a monthly check from one party to the other.
To get more information about these different forms of spouse-to-spouse payments in the context of pre-, during, or post-divorce, please contact me by calling (215) 732-0101.