Q: What is alimony or maintenance?

A: Alimony or maintenance–sometimes also referred to as "spousal support"–is money paid from one spouse to another for day-to-day support of the spouse with fewer financial resources. Sometimes alimony also can be used to pay back a debt. For example, if one spouse paid to put the other spouse through college or graduate school, alimony might be used to pay back the spouse who provided financial support for the education.

Q: When do courts award alimony?

A: At one time, courts commonly ordered husbands to pay alimony to their former wives until the ex-wives married again or died. Today, alimony is ordered by a court on the basis of one spouse’s need or entitlement and the other spouse’s ability to pay. Although most alimony payments are made from men to women, it is possible that a well-off woman could be required to pay support to her economically dependent husband. Maintenance is awarded less often now because there are more two-income couples and fewer marriages in which one person is financially dependent on the other. A person who pays support may deduct it from his or her income for tax purposes; the one who receives it must pay taxes on it (unless the parties agree otherwise).

Q: What is permanent support?

A: Courts award permanent spousal support to provide money for a spouse who cannot become economically independent. The most common reason for ordering permanent maintenance is that the recipient, because of advanced age or chronic illness, will never be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living without the support. When deciding the amount of permanent support, courts often use the same criteria as for dividing property.

Although it is called permanent support, the support can change or cease if the ability of the payer or the needs of the recipient change significantly. It ends if the recipient remarries, and it may end if the recipient lives with someone else.