Unlike child support, courts usually aren't under any obligation to order alimony. It's designed to provide both spouses with the ability to maintain the marital lifestyle after a divorce, so when they earn about the same amount, it's rarely ordered -- the spouses can each take care of themselves equally. The outcome often changes when one spouse out-earns the other to a significant extent, and alimony is sometimes ordered in this case, whether you legally separate or divorce.
Most states' legislative codes include provisions for temporary alimony. This is just what it sounds like – it lasts for a short period of time, terminating when your divorce is final. You generally can't receive this type of alimony without filing for divorce, although at least one state -- Pennsylvania -- allows you to ask for spousal support before you file. Temporary alimony helps you make ends meet until the court issues a final decree providing for a more long-term solution.
Alimony Pendente Lite
Alimony pendente lite is another type of temporary support. Technically, it's meant to provide you with funds with which you can hire a divorce lawyer and otherwise afford the legal proceedings. However, some states use this term interchangeably with temporary alimony. Alimony pendente lite also only lasts until the court issues a final decree of divorce.
If you want to ask for alimony or support without divorcing, you may have the option to file for a legal separation instead. Not all states recognize this type of separation, which generally involves filing a complaint or petition with the court, just as you would if you wanted a divorce. If your state allows for this, you can file for legal or judicial separation – called a limited divorce in some states – and ask for nothing other than alimony so you can afford to live apart from your spouse. You can include requests for property and custody as well, however. This type of alimony is not considered temporary because it's open-ended. If you don't live in a state that recognizes a judicial separation process and you and your spouse can agree on alimony terms, you can incorporate them into a separation agreement. After signing, such an agreement is a legally binding contract.
Permanent alimony is what you receive when your divorce is final, although it may not literally be permanent or forever. The term simply means that it supplants or replaces a temporary alimony award – or, in some cases, begins alimony payments when a spouse did not receive support while the divorce was pending. It begins with your final decree, either for a set duration or indefinitely, until you remarry or some other event takes place that would terminate it. The same typically applies if you have a decree for legal separation.