alimony, in law, allowance for support that an individual pays to his or her former spouse, usually as part of a divorce settlement. It is based on the common law right of a wife to be supported by her husband, but in the United States, the Supreme Court in 1979 removed its limitation to husbands, to account for cases in which the wife is wealthier. Alimony is distinct from child support, which is the duty of both mother and father to contribute, based on ability to pay, to the support of minor children. Temporary alimony is allowed pending the outcome of a suit for divorce or separation, or for a decree of nullity of marriage, whether initiated by husband or wife; permanent alimony may be granted after a divorce has taken effect. In contemporary law, alimony is generally awarded only in cases where one spouse is unable to support himself or herself. Such cases are not common: recent figures show that some 90% of U.S. divorces are free of alimony requirements. Alimony ceases on the death of the individual liable; it is not payable out of his or her estate. Remarriage of the individual collecting alimony does not necessarily terminate payments, but the amount may be reduced or the court may cut them off if the recipient's new spouse can support him or her adequately. In all cases the need for and amount of alimony are questions that can be reopened at any time in a court having jurisdiction over the parties. A decree awarding alimony is a court order issued personally, and enforced by contempt of court sanctions. Today, alimony is often called "maintenance." In cases of extended cohabitation, so-called palimony sometimes may be awarded.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.