Pennsylvania: Alimony Factors

by Brian Vertz on February 3, 2010

What factors inflence a spouse’s eligibility for alimony after divorce under Pennsylvania law?

Under Pennsylvania law, post-divorce alimony “is a secondary remedy . . . available only where economic justice and the reasonable needs of a party cannot be achieved by way of an equitable distribution award and development of an appropriate employable skill.” These are the well-known words of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania in its Opinion in Nemoto v. Nemoto, 620 A.2d 1216 (Pa.Super.1993). Most of the important concepts in alimony jurisprudence are covered in this sentence. First, the trial courts must attempt to divide marital property in a way that avoids the need for post-divorce alimony. Why? Because the courts encourage a complete cessation of financial ties between divorcing spouses. If enough property (particuarly income-generating property) can be conveyed to a divorcing spouse, then that property can fulfill all of the spouse’s economic needs without the financial “umbilical cord” of alimony.

  • The value of the assets and liabilities distributed to each of the parties must be considered before awarding alimony. 23 Pa.C.S. § 3701(b)(10), (16); Fee v. Fee, 496 A.2d 793 (Pa.Super. 1985).
  • In its determination of alimony, the trial court must consider the income generated by a spouse’s marital and nonmarital assets. Ressler v. Ressler, 644 A.2d 753 (Pa.Super. 1994).

Second, our Courts encourage spouses to maximize their earning capacity and income potential through appropriate employment. In the first decade of the Divorce Code, enacted in 1980, the law provided that alimony could be awarded only for rehabilitative purposes, such as paying for college or vocational training. Alimony was not permitted in Pennsylvania prior to 1980, and the legislators who enacted the  Divorce Code worried that spouses would lose their incentive to become self-supporting if they could easily receive post-divorce alimony. The alimony law has been revised since 1980, allowing alimony for other reasons, such as meeting the budgetary shortfall of a spouse who is incapable of self-support. Still, the old law remains a strong influence among judges and lawyers in Pennsylvania. Several attempts to modernize the alimony law have failed, primarily because they might reduce a spouse’s incentive to go back to work. 23 Pa.C.S. § 3701(b)(1), (9), (17).

  • The Court imputed an earning capacity to a dependent spouse who devoted her time to an unproductive start-up business instead of seeking gainful employment. Thomson v. Thomson, 519 A.2d 483 (Pa.Super.1986).
  • An award of alimony for ten years was deemed excessive when a college education leading to a self-supporting job would require just four years. Barrett v. Barrett, 614 A.2d 299 (Pa.Super.1992).
  • In cases where there is no evidence of an impediment that would prevent a spouse from becoming self-supporting, the court is authorized to limit an alimony award. Adelstein v. Adelstein, 553 A.2d 436 (Pa.Super.1989).
  • In cases where a spouse’s earning capacity was limited by a medical disability or the disability of a custodial chid, Soncini v. Soncini, 612 A.2d 998 (Pa.Super.1992), the court may decline to impose a full time earning capacity upon a dependent spouse, justifying an award of alimony.

Finally, the law looks to the reasonable needs of a spouse. After a divorce, each spouse must have sufficient cash flow to meet his/her monthly household expenses. Yet, judges realize that two households cannot exist as cheaply as one combined household. The marital standard of living is just one of the seventeen statutory criteria for alimony awards, and in practice, it is one of the least influential. The expenses associated with custody of a child is more influential in an ex-spouse’s request for alimony. Just as important is the ability of a dependent spouse to become self-supporting through appropriate employment and the financial hardship that alimony may cause to the payor. When determining the amount and duration of an alimony award, the courts scrutinize the budget of a spouse seeking alimony carefully. 23 Pa.C.S. § 3701(b)(7), (8), (13).

  • The Court will not allow an award of alimony that would divert twice as much income to the alimony recipient as the payor, which would allow her to enjoy a better standard of living than she had enjoyed during the marriage Ressler v. Ressler, 644 A.2d 753 (Pa.Super.1994).

Marital misconduct is just one of the seventeen factors in awarding alimony, and it has remained one of the least influential since the enactment of the Divorce Code. 23 Pa.C.S. § 3701(b)(14); Nuttal v. Nuttal, 562 A.2d 841 (Pa.Super.1989).

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