You only have the obligation to pay spousal support ("alimony") when you are actually married. While a number of court decisions have allowed claims for support between unmarried people who have lived together ("cohabitants"), these claims are different from the claim for alimony.
An alimony award is generally paid in "periodic (regular) installments, usually monthly.
When Must Alimony Be Paid?
Both spouses in a marriage are expected to work for at least a substantial portion of their marriage. When a marriage ends, there should be no expectation from either spouse for lifetime support.
In a marriage of relatively brief duration (under five years), the courts most often assume that:
Each party has kept the same ability to support themselves from prior to the marriage.
While some brief adjustment period may be needed, each spouse should be expected to be substantially independent and self-supporting within a short time after the divorce. This assumes that each party can simply continue in, or reenter, the workforce as a full-time employee on short notice. This is an assumption that is unrealistic if one of the parties is required to provide primary care for a child (or children) of the marriage.
In a marriage of longer duration, extended spousal support (and in some cases even lifetime alimony) may be appropriate. A court calculating alimony in these cases will usually take into consideration:
The receiving spouse’s assumed earning capacity
The property and debts received by each spouse
The physical and mental health of the receiving spouse
Any disparity in earning capacity of the spouses
Types of Alimony
Spousal support is typically called either "rehabilitative"; or "permanent" alimony.
Rehabilitative alimony is alimony paid for a specific period of time, where it is anticipated that all alimony will cease at the end of that period.
This form of alimony allows the necessary amount of time for the dependent spouse to upgrade education or acquire new work skills and return to employment.
In a substantial percentage of cases, rehabilitative alimony isn’t enough to allow the spouse to be economically self-sufficient.
Permanent alimony is alimony to be paid for an indefinite period of time. However, despite its name, you shouldn’t expect that permanent alimony will be paid for life.
The party responsible for paying permanent alimony must ask the court for a reduction or elimination of alimony, when appropriate circumstances arise.
A few states reject the idea of prejudging the amount of time necessary for rehabilitation and award permanent alimony as a matter of course.
Termination of Spousal Support
There are certain specific events that typically end the obligation to pay or right to receive spousal support:
The death of either spouse
The remarriage of the spouse who is receiving alimony
In addition, substantial changes of circumstances may lead to modification or elimination of spousal support. Examples include:
The retirement or laying off of the spouse paying alimony
Substantial increases in the income of the spouse receiving alimony
and other similar factors
The effect of cohabitation[sometimes called a "meretricious relationship"] of the payee spouse with a presumed sexual partner without marriage is a controversial issue.
Some courts see this situation as a basis for terminating spousal support in every case
Other courts view this situation as a basis for terminating support only if the relationship is "marriage like"
Some courts examine the relationship to see if it provides, or should provide, financial advantage to the spouse receiving support. If it does, the court may decide a modification or elimination of alimony is appropriate
Once a court ends the obligation to pay alimony, it can’ be revived, even if the situation of the receiving spouse changes substantially. So when there is a substantial change of circumstances potentially leading to the elimination of alimony, a court may make the paying spouse pay a token alimony payment, even if it’s a very small amount.