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Spousal Support 101: Everything You Need to Know

4 min read

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By Larissa Holt

Determining spousal support can be tricky. Learn more about how states determine spousal support guidelines and how to tell if you’re getting what you deserve.

Spousal support is something that is often requested during a divorce or separation, but it’s something that a lot of people don’t actually understand. While it may seem like all situations are eligible for spousal support of some kind, the truth is that there are very specific rules in place for when spousal support comes into play, how it is calculated and for how long it stays in effect. Understanding what spousal support is and how it works is an important part of getting an accurate picture of what you may be entitled to in a divorce.

What Is Spousal Support?

On a basic level, spousal support is money paid from one person to the other as part of an agreement that comes with a divorce, dissolution or legal separation. It is often confused with alimony, which is actually slightly different. Spousal support is usually awarded when there is a great income disparity between two parties or one party didn’t work outside the home during the marriage, and is usually only in effect for a short amount of time. Alimony, on the other hand, is often awarded when a long-term marriage comes to an end and usually stays in effect until one party dies or the party receiving the alimony remarries.

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How Is Spousal Support Determined?

Every state has its own calculations for spousal support, and this is why it’s always important to ensure you find out what your state’s requirements and formulas are and to get information from an attorney who is knowledgeable about your state’s laws. However, there are some factors that are usually taken into consideration in all spousal support determinations.

Length of Marriage

The length of the marriage is one of the most important components of determining if you are eligible for spousal support and how much that support is. For example, in Ohio, the parties must be married a minimum of 3 years for spousal support to be able to be awarded, and the longer the marriage, the longer the term of the spousal support.

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The Income and Earning Potential of Both Parties

Income is also a major determining factor in spousal support. Spousal support is more likely to be awarded if one party makes significantly more money than the other. However, earning potential also comes into play. Consider these two scenarios.

Scenario 1

Spouse A makes $50,000 per year. Spouse B makes $15,000 per year. In this case, it is likely that the courts would award Spouse B spousal support payments.

Scenario 2

Spouse A makes $50,000 per year and has a bachelor’s degree. Spouse B makes $15,000 per year but is an MD. In this case, even though Spouse A makes significantly more than Spouse B, Spouse B’s earning potential is much higher than Spouse A’s, which means that there could be no spousal support awarded or Spouse B may even end up making payments to Spouse A.

Current and Past Living Situations

The courts will also look at how the family has been living and what the living arrangements are likely to be moving forward. For example, if one spouse didn’t go to college or didn’t work outside the home so that they could take care of the children or help support the other spouse’s continued education or career advancement, this could be a situation where spousal support is awarded. This is because the courts recognize that one spouse made personal sacrifices for the betterment of the family as a whole, but now that the family is being dissolved, that spouse will need financial support while they seek education or employment to support themselves. This is often referred to as rehabilitative spousal support.

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Prenuptial or Postnuptial Agreements

If a prenup or postnup is in place and had provisions for how any spousal support would be handled, this will also be looked at by the courts. It’s important to note here that just because a prenup or postnup addresses spousal support doesn’t mean that the courts must abide by this agreement. In most cases they will honor it, but the courts do have the right to put forth a different judgement that they see as fit.

Types of Alimony

Once the amount of spousal support has been determined, there are three main ways in which it is dispersed:

Lump sum

This may be an option if there are large value assets that the paying party can sell or if there are personal financial accounts that can pay out the spousal support all at once.


This is the most common way that spousal support is paid. Payments are usually made monthly but could also be weekly, biweekly or annually.


In some cases, the spousal support may involve a lump sum at the beginning and then smaller payments ongoing for the term of the support.

How Can a Family Law Attorney Help?

Anytime there are finances involved, family law can get complex. It’s always a good idea to have an attorney who can help you evaluate if your case meets the requirements for spousal support and determine how much money you may get and for how long. It’s also common for one party to not be aware of the entire marital finances or for one party to try to hide assets, and a knowledgeable family law attorney can help you better understand how to address these issues.

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