The Rise and Fall of Alimony in United States Courts

The origins of alimony can be traced back to English law where wives were considered property and husbands were viewed as property owners. The wife depended upon her husband to provide for life’s necessitiesand courts consistently ruled that the husband had the duty to support his wife after divorce.

Critical differences can be seen between past and present day divorces. England originally only granted divorces a mensa et thoro (from bed and board), which allowed a husband and wife to live apart, but the two parties were still legally married in the eyes of the law. Consequently, an English divorce meant that a wife was separated from her husband but still married and considered his property. The rights of a single woman were not restored to her and she was forever dependent upon her husband for support. As time went by, women became independent, divorce became absolute, but we have carried with it the English court’s policy of assisting with the support of the wife after the marriage is dissolved. This became known as alimony.

The first reported case of alimony in American courts was in 1866. The case involved a wife in a divorce action who petitioned the court for alimony pendente lite. Although the court denied her motion she was awarded money for her attorney’s fees. One year later, in 1867, the court expanded the concept of alimony pendente lite to assist the wife with travel expenses of witnesses. As the years went by, the purpose of alimony changed to reflect new societal views.

Initially a court decision on spousal support emphasized the “bad acts” of the husband. In the 1974 case, Buchanan v. Buchanan, 49 Ala. App. 528; 274 So. 2d 84 (1973), the Supreme Court for the first time in more than a hundred years defined specific issues for the trial court to consider when determining an award of alimony. The Supreme Court listed six factors that the trial court should evaluate when determining alimony. They are as follows:

1. The financial condition of the parties;

2. The nature and value of their respective property;

3. The contribution of each to any property held by them as tenants by the entirety;

4. The duration of the marriage;

5. The husband’s income, his earning capacity, his age, health, and ability to labor;

6. The wife’s age, health, station, and ability to earn a living.

Again in 1994 the Supreme Court conveyed seven factors in determining the appropriate alimony award:

1. The wife’s career prior to marriage;

2. The length of the marriage;

3. The husband’s education during the marriage;                                                                                               

4. The wife’s marketability;

5. The wife’s ability to support herself;

6. Whether the wife stayed home with the children in lieu of work; and 

7. The wife’s award, besides child support and alimony.

In addition, courts have determined alimony to entitle ex-wives to live in the station of life that they were accustomed to before the divorce. However,  the Supreme Court ultimately clarified the issue of “fault” and “bad acts”; courts are no longer authorized to consider misconduct of either of the parties when considering alimony.

Despite this flexible history, more present day courts are awarding less, sometimes with no spousal support as women have been earning degrees, entering the work force, and have become financially independent from their (soon to be ex) husbands.