Alimony law has changed a great deal since the days when wives rarely worked outside the home and financial maintenance after divorce was crucial. These days, it comes down to a case-by-case evaluation of the factors involved in a particular divorce. State legislative codes include detailed criteria to guide judges' decisions regarding alimony, and Rhode Island's General Laws are no exception. This state tends to be somewhat alimony-friendly.
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Section 15-5-16 of Rhode Island's General Laws enumerates the factors a judge must consider when deciding whether to order alimony. The longer the marriage, the more likely alimony will be awarded, particularly if one spouse left the workforce for a long period of time to care for the home and family. Rhode Island courts consider this to be as much of a contribution to the marriage as income gained from working. Another pivotal factor is whether there are still young children in the home who need one parent's care. Rhode Island courts are not likely to force such a parent into the workforce to support herself, assuming the other spouse has sufficient income to share. In all cases, courts strive to achieve a standard of living comparable to that which existed during the marriage.
Section 15-5-16 of the General Laws also mentions marital conduct, but this issue can be a bit complicated. Alimony cannot be punitive; a spouse can neither be ordered to pay it as punishment for committing adultery nor barred from receiving it because she strayed. Misconduct can impact a court's alimony decision nonetheless, and the General Laws specifically provide for this. Although Rhode Island recognizes both no-fault and fault grounds for divorce, Section 15-5-3.1 states that charges of specific acts of marital misconduct are inadmissible in a divorce proceeding, with some major exceptions. The court can consider allegations when determining alimony or when making custody decisions.
Alimony may last forever in Rhode Island. The state's focus is on awarding it for a sufficient period of time to allow an under-earning spouse to acquire the education or job skills necessary to support herself – usually about three years – or until younger children no longer need that parent's full-time care. After longer marriages, however, this may not be a reasonable expectation. If a spouse has been out of the workforce for 20 years or more, she may never be able to establish a career that would earn an income sufficient for her to maintain the same standard of living that she enjoyed while married. In this case, a court can order alimony for an indefinite period of time. Courts can also order temporary or "pendente lite" alimony to assist an under-earning spouse during the court proceedings.
Modifications and Termination
Rhode Island law provides leeway for a court to change an alimony order post-divorce if critical elements change. A court can modify the alimony terms included in a divorce decree retroactive to the date the change occurred, which can reduce or possibly even eliminate accrued arrears if one spouse has been unable to pay. Changes that might warrant modification include job loss or some other circumstance that might seriously affect the paying spouse's ability to furnish the other with alimony income. Remarriage is another matter entirely. If the receiving spouse remarries, alimony automatically terminates in Rhode Island.