Spousal Support Guidelines in Virginia

by Beverly Bird

Virginia’s alimony statutes were relatively stagnant until 1998 when the legislature finally took steps to bring its laws current with the social climate. The 1998 legislation changed the term “alimony” to “spousal support,” and it allows judges a little more discretion when awarding it. Since then, some counties have continued to upgrade their spousal support guidelines, predominantly those in the northern part of the state.

Calculations

Courts in Fairfax and other northern counties use a formula to determine the amount of spousal support payable from one spouse to another after divorce. The formula restricts spousal support to situations where one spouse outearns the other by 50 percent or more. If you earn $40,000 a year, and your spouse earns $50,000 a year, you’re not likely to receive an award of alimony in these counties because he earns only 25 percent more than you. When incomes qualify, the courts set alimony at 30 percent of the higher-earning spouse’s income minus 50 percent of the under-earning spouse’s income. For example, if your spouse earns $50,000 a year and you earn $25,000 a year, or half what he does, your alimony award would be $2,500 a year, or a little less than $210 per month. Thirty percent of your spouse’s income equals $15,000. Half your income equals $12,500. The difference between $15,000 and $12,500 is $2,500. If you have children and your spouse pays you child support, the calculation changes to 28 percent of his income and 58 percent of yours.

Factors Influencing Support

Judges may deviate from the formula when they think it’s appropriate and some counties don’t use these calculations at all. In these cases, other factors come into play. For example, Virginia law generally does not allow open-ended or permanent spousal support awards to spouses who have committed adultery. The state also will not order a spouse to pay alimony to punish him for marital misconduct, such as if he strays. Other factors a court might take into consideration include contributions the under-earning spouse may have made to the higher-earning spouse’s ability to earn a more substantial income, for example, if she worked to put him through school at the cost of pursuing her own schooling. The primary purpose of spousal support is to create a roughly equal standard of living between spouses post-divorce. The longer spouses are married and depend on each other to maintain their lifestyle, the more likely it is that a Virginia court will order spousal support.

Types of Support

Spousal support is sometimes payable in one lump sum at the time of divorce, allowing the receiving spouse to invest it or use it as she sees fit, such as for a down payment on a home. More often, courts order alimony in monthly installments. A court might order spousal support while a divorce is pending, but decline to order it post-divorce based on marital property distributed to the under-earning spouse. Post-divorce spousal support is usually either “technical” or “fixed” in Virginia. Technical alimony usually hinges upon a certain event, such as it's payable until all the couple’s children graduate from high school. This type of support is usually reached by agreement between spouses rather than ordered by the court. Fixed alimony does not depend on any circumstances or conditions.

Duration

The duration of alimony awards in Virginia is one of the major issues affected by the 1998 legislation. Prior to 1998, the law did not allow judges to award spousal support for only a specified period of time. Alimony was always permanent and only death, remarriage or cohabitation could terminate it. Since 1998, judges may order “rehabilitative” alimony, lasting long enough to allow an under-earning spouse to take steps to improve her income so as to be more able to support a lifestyle comparable to that which she enjoyed while married.