Under Michigan law, alimony is known as spousal support. This suggests that alimony is similar to child support, but in fact the two things are very different.

The justification for child support stems from the legal obligation all parents have to provide for their children. Both parents must pay for the needs of their children, and courts presume that a child support order will be required in any divorce or case where unmarried parents do not live together. Courts use a formula to set child support obligation amounts based upon the child’s needs and a parent’s ability to pay.

By contrast, courts do not assume that spousal support will be necessary in any divorce. In cases where the court determines a spousal support order is needed, the court has no set formula for how to determine the amount. Rather, courts decide these issues on a case-by-case basis.

The justification for spousal support stems from the need to divide the marital property in divorce in a way that meets standards of fairness. If the circumstances of the case suggest that one party will be left at an unfair disadvantage, the court may find that a spousal support order is merited.

For example, imagine a case where Albert and Beatrice are getting divorced after eight years of marriage. In the property division process, the court sees that Beatrice, who was wealthy before the marriage, will get to keep the family home and can continue making money in her high-paying career. Albert will have to make do with a modest settlement. He left his job five years ago to take care of the couple’s children, and now he will be at a disadvantage when he tries to resume his career.

Under these circumstances, a court may find that fairness demands that Beatrice pay Albert spousal support. The obligation may be for a set period of time, or until Albert meets some sort of threshold of income and stability.

Because spousal support questions are so specific to the circumstances of each case, they can be very unpredictable. People going through a divorce should speak with a lawyer about their options with regard to spousal support and every other aspect of divorce.