When the marriage dissolves, married couples must separate themselves financially. In many cases one party is the primary wage earner, and the other is dependent on that income to meet living expenses. Support alimony cushions the impact of losing income earned by the other spouse.
Oklahoma’s published court cases offer a patchwork approach to the underlying justification for support alimony. Some cases suggest support alimony should, to the extent possible, allow both parties to live the lifestyle the parties enjoyed before the marriage dissolved. Other cases take the approach that alimony should help the lower-earning spouse transition to self-support. Under either theory, support alimony supplements the lower-earning spouse’s cost of living following separation.
Demonstrated need and ability to pay
There is no formula to set support alimony in Oklahoma. The first question one must ask in assessing whether support alimony is proper in a given case – Do the asking party’s reasonable living expense needs exceed their income? If the answer to the first question is yes, one must ask the second question – How much can the higher-earning spouse reasonably be expected to pay? Given that it costs more to run two separate households than it did to run as a single household during the marriage, couples often find themselves in conflict while struggling to allocate these higher costs.
Though the benchmarks in any support alimony claim are demonstrated need and ability to pay, the facts that bolster or rebut either element of the alimony claim are almost limitless. Over the years, Oklahoma courts have considered the following, among others, as factors justifying or limiting alimony awards:
- future earning capacity
- present earning capacity
- present ability to pay
- each spouse’s condition and means
- length of the marriage
- ages of the parties
- each party’s health
- future increase in the value of property
- opportunities for employment
- the ability to obtain gainful employment
- the mode of living to which the parties had become accustomed during the marriage
- the probability of the parties’ ability to progress financially
- the earning capacity of the parties before the marriage
- each party’s level of education
- the loss of the right of inheritance
- expectation of a future inheritance
- the age of the minor children and the need to keep up a home for them
- each parties’ station in life before the divorce
Modifying Support Alimony
Support alimony terminates on the death of the recipient, or the payor. Support usually terminates when the recipient remarries, although the recipient has 90 days to apply to the court to continue support based on need. The payor may move to modify or terminate support when the recipient voluntarily cohabits with a member of the opposite sex. Voluntary cohabitation means “the dwelling together continuously and habitually of a man and a woman who are in a private conjugal relationship not solemnized as a marriage according to law, or not necessarily meeting all the standards of a common-law marriage.” (This statute obviously needs to be updated to encompass same-sex couples.) In addition, a court can modify support alimony based on a substantial change of conditions relating to the need for support, or the ability to pay.
Fault is not an issue in setting support alimony in Oklahoma. The State abandoned fault as a factor in determining support alimony 40 years ago. Gender is also not a factor. Though a claim for support alimony is based on economics, the concept of giving or receiving financial support while at the same time separating financially creates emotional as well as monetary burdens. A support alimony analysis can be a harsh reality check for both spouses. There is seldom enough cash flow to satisfy everyone’s needs.