How to calculate spousal support

Updated March 23, 2017

When a married couple is divorced, alimony is often one of the most contentious issues. The purpose of spousal support is to allow both spouses to go on living their accustomed lifestyle after a marriage, and thereby prevent a spouse from seeking a divorce out of financial dependence. The first prerogative in calculating spousal support rests with the spouses themselves. Only when they can't reach an agreement on the matter does the court step in and fix the amount of spousal support according to long established considerations.

Determine eligibility. Spousal support is usually not granted in cases where the marriage lasted less than a year, or when both spouses are employed and self-sufficient. Aside from these disqualifying conditions, the court will tend to be inclined to grant some degree of alimony.

Consider employment prospects. If a spouse seeking alimony is capable of working, she might be expected to do so. In these cases, the court might limit alimony according to the spouse's earning potential and the length of time necessary to obtain training and secure a job. Employment will not be required in cases where the spouse is disabled or when caring for the couple's children precludes working full-time.

Account for ability to pay. A court can award a spouse a large part of the other spouse's assets, but not more than he is able to pay. Thus, the net income of the paying spouse, and the total debts of the couple, are crucial considerations that help determine the total amount from which spousal support can be awarded.

Weigh other factors. Spousal support is a way to extract equity from a marriage, and it follows that the longer the marriage lasted the more equity would exist. Other contributions, such as financing a spouse's education, homemaking and the raising of children, increase a spouse's right to draw spousal support. Negative contributions, like documented abuse, can limit that right, or increase a spouse's liability to the other.

Consider duration. It's rare that a relatively young spouse would be granted perpetual spousal support, especially since her living conditions are likely to change. Most spousal support ends either at a predetermined date or if the spouse remarries. Older spouses, especially when the duration of the marriage exceeds her life expectancy, can expect to receive perpetual support.


Spousal support in absolute dollar terms varies by state according to cost of living. It is also more common to use relative factors, such as those listed above, because spousal support is supposed to be predicated on the lifestyle of the couple and the spouse's ability to pay.

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About the Author

Joseph Nicholson is an independent analyst whose publishing achievements include a cover feature for "Futures Magazine" and a recurring column in the monthly newsletter of a private mint. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Florida and is currently attending law school in San Francisco.