Historically, alimony arose as a result of the indissoluble nature of marriage. Because divorce was rare, husband and wife remained married after their physical separation and the husband's obligation to support his wife continued. With the growing view that men and women should be treated equally, the law recognized that both husbands and wives owed each other a similar duty of support. Accordingly, courts now may order either the husband or wife to pay alimony. In practice it is more often the husband that is required to pay.
Where a divorce or dissolution of marriage (civil union) is granted, either party may ask for post-marital alimony. It is not an absolute right, but may be granted, the amount and terms varying with the circumstances. If one party is already receiving support at the time of the divorce, the previous order is not automatically continued (although this can be requested), as the arguments for support during and after the marriage can be different.
Unless the parties agree on the terms of their divorce in a binding written instrument, the court will make a determination based on the legal argument and the testimony submitted by both parties. This can be modified at any future date based on a change of circumstances by either party on proper notice to the other party and application to the court. The courts are generally reluctant to modify an existing agreement unless the reasons are compelling. In some jurisdictions the court always has jurisdiction to grant maintenance should one of the former spouses become a public charge.
Alimony is treated very differently from child support in the United States with respect to taxation. Alimony is treated as income to the receiving spouse, and deducted from the income of the paying spouse. Child support is not a payment that affects U.S. taxes as it is viewed as a payment that a parent is making for the support of their own offspring.
If a party fails to pay alimony, there are not generally any special legal options available to the party that is owed money. In many jurisdictions, people whose child support obligations go into arrears can have licenses seized; in a few states they can even be imprisoned. Someone trying to recover back alimony can sometimes only use the collection procedures that are available to all other creditors (for example, (s)he could report the back alimony to a collection agency). In some states, if someone is unable to pay all of his or her alimony, he or she will be found in contempt of court and placed in jail.
These requirements apply whether the parties enter an agreement that is approved in an order of the Court (contractual alimony) or the Court orders alimony after a contested trial (statutory alimony). For an example, see Post-Divorce Alimony in Texas
A divorce or separation instrument is defined as a decree of divorce or separate maintenance or a written instrument incident to such a decree, a written separation agreement, or a decree requiring a spouse to make payments for the support or maintenance of the other spouse.
Child support must be included in the payer’s gross income and can be excluded from the recipient’s gross income. Child support payments are payments that are allocated to the support of the minor children of the pair. If the amount of the alimony payments would be reduced in the event of the age, death, or marriage of the child, this contingent amount would be considered child support.
Section 215 of the Internal Revenue Code allows the alimony payer to take a tax deduction for any alimony or separate maintenance paid during the year. The payer’s deduction is tied to the recipient’s inclusion of alimony.
Together Sections 71 and 215 act as an income splitting device. Because of this, collaborative divorce processes such as mediation may allow special tax-saving alimony planning opportunities. See, for example, Mediation's Power in Alimony Cases