What's the Difference Between Alimony and Child Support?
Alimony and child support are two common parts of the divorce process — but even though they seem similar, they’re not quite the same thing.
Going through a divorce or custody fight can be confusing and emotional, so understanding all your options — including the financial support you're entitled to receive — is important.
Alimony — often referred to as spousal support — is a set amount that goes to a spouse after separation or divorce. The purpose is to allow the spouse to have a similar lifestyle as they had during the marriage, so it typically only goes to the spouse who makes less money. In some cases, a spouse who didn't work outside the home might receive alimony until they become financially independent.
Alimony isn't automatic. It's something you have to request as part of the divorce proceedings, and it's not guaranteed. State guidelines on alimony vary and often depend on how long you're married, how much each partner makes and other factors. Alimony can be temporary for a short, fixed period or perpetual, lasting until one spouse dies or the recipient remarries.
Child support is financial compensation that's meant to pay for the child's expenses to help maintain their standard of living. It's meant to cover the child's necessities, including housing, food, clothing and medical expenses. Despite being intended for the child's expenses, the money goes to the custodial parent rather than directly to the child. The court uses a formula based on custody, each spouse's income and other factors to determine the amount of child support.
The primary difference between alimony and child support is who each one intends to support. Alimony supports the standard of living of the spouse, while child support is for the child's standard of living. Child support can be ordered by the court even if you weren't married to the other parent of your child. Alimony can only be ordered under a divorce or separation agreement.
The time period can also vary. Alimony can be ongoing for the rest of your life or until you remarry. Child support typically ends when the child turns 18 or graduates from high school. In some states, child support can continue through college if the money goes toward the child's education.
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