There are few things in family law more controversial than alimony (also referred to as spousal maintenance), which is defined as a series of support payments made by one former spouse to another. Traditionally, alimony may be awarded when one spouse has need of financial support to maintain the marital standard of living, the other spouse has the ability to pay it, and the award meets certain criteria of fairness (e.g. it should not plunge the paying spouse into poverty or excuse the payee spouse from engaging in paid employment). Historically, alimony was paid by ex-husbands to their ex-wives, but today’s laws make it plain that either a man or a woman may be the payor. Spouses who have stayed home or reduced paid employment to raise children may claim that their activities at home made success at work more possible for the other spouse to succeed in the workplace, and that this should result in a greater share of the property division or an alimony award to either compensate the stay-at-home spouse for the sacrificed opportunities (restitution) or enable him or her to re-tool for a job with good pay (rehabilitation). Indeed, statutes like Wisconsin’s §767.56 direct judges to consider all of these factors (and others) in determining whether to award alimony to a divorcing spouse.
Nonetheless, alimony has never been common and has become less so: the few empirical studies that have been done show that only a small minority of divorcing spouses are awarded alimony of any amount and for any duration. The reasons for the always-low and still-declining numbers of alimony recipients are many and varied, and a full discussion of all of the theories requires more than a blog post.