The Evolution of Alimony and the Law

As our society changes over time, so too does the law. There is perhaps no area of the law where this is more prevalent than family law. This includes changes in the way in which we view marriages and apply the law when a marriage is dissolved.

One aspect of marriage dissolution that has progressively developed as societal norms have changed is alimony.

Iowa Code Section 598.21A lists the non-exclusive list of factors the Court is to consider in determining alimony:

1. Criteria for determining support. Upon every judgment of annulment, dissolution or separate maintenance, the court may grant an order requiring support payments to either party for a limited or indefinite length of time after considering all of the following:

a. The length of the marriage.

b. The age and physical and emotional health of the parties.

c. The distribution of property made pursuant to section 598.21.

d. The educational level of each party at the time of marriage and at the time the action

is commenced.

e. The earning capacity of the party seeking maintenance, including educational

background, training, employment skills, work experience, length of absence from the job

market, responsibilities for children under either an award of custody or physical care, and

the time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the

party to find appropriate employment.

f. The feasibility of the party seeking maintenance becoming self-supporting at a standard

of living reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage, and the length of time

necessary to achieve this goal.

g. The tax consequences to each party.

h. Any mutual agreement made by the parties concerning financial or service

contributions by one party with the expectation of future reciprocation or compensation by

the other party.

i. The provisions of an antenuptial agreement.

j. Other factors the court may determine to be relevant in an individual case.

The law applying the statutes has traditionally identified three kinds of support: traditional, rehabilitation, and reimbursement. These categories may overlap in some cases and the factors listed in Iowa Code Section 598.21A(1) cannot be considered in isolation from each other. As the Iowa Supreme Court has famously stated in Fennelly v. Breckenfelder “marriage does not come with a ledger”, spouses agree to accept one another for better or worse, and each person’s contributions cannot be reduced to a dollar amount. However, a spouse leaving a marriage at a financial disadvantage is entitled to be supported, for a reasonable time, in a manner as closely resembling the standards existing during the marriage as possible without destroying the right of the party providing the income to enjoy at least a comparable standard of living. Alimony is in essence a stipend to a spouse in lieu of the other spouse’s legal obligation for support.

Per the keystone alimony case of In re Marriage of Gust, “The purpose of a traditional or permanent alimony award is to provide the receiving spouse with support comparable to what he or she would receive if the marriage continued”. Alimony may be used to remedy inequities in a marriage and compensate a spouse who leaves the marriage at a financial disadvantage. The Courts have found that when making an alimony assessment there is no strict equation and that an alimony award should differ in amount and duration according to the purpose it is designed to serve.

Traditional or permanent alimony is usually payable for life. The purpose of a traditional or permanent alimony award is to provide the receiving spouse with support comparable to what he or she would receive if the marriage continued.

Rehabilitative alimony serves to support an economically dependent spouse through a limited period of re-education or retraining following divorce, thereby creating incentive and opportunity for that spouse to become self-supporting. The dependent spouse’s pre-marriage standard of living is irrelevant. The Code does not direct the court to restore an ex-spouse to his or her premarital standard of living.

Furthermore, the Courts have found that spouses are not required to maximize their earning potential or risk being punished in the distribution of the parties' property upon dissolution of marriage.

Reimbursement alimony is intended to address economic sacrifices that one spouse has made during the course of the marriage that directly enhance the future earning capacity of the other. These sorts of sacrifices are often concrete and demonstrable.

However, recently, the Iowa Supreme Court defined yet another form of alimony identified as transitional alimony. In recognizing this new form of alimony the Iowa Supreme Court stated “Divorcing spouses must adjust to single life. If one is better equipped for that adjustment and the other will face hardship, then transitional alimony can be awarded to address that inequity and bridge the gap," so that “We now formally recognize transitional alimony as another tool to do equity”.

Many important issues regarding the best way to do equity between divorcing spouses remain to be addressed and decided, presenting a challenging and ever-evolving landscape.