What Is the Difference Between Alimony, Spousal Support, and Child Support?

What Is the Difference Between Alimony, Spousal Support, and Child Support?

The terms alimony, spousal support, and child  support are thrown around a fair amount in reference to family law. While these payments may seem interchangeable, they can be very different in structure and usage.

What Is Alimony?

Alimony is essentially a dated term to describe the payments made to a former spouse so that she can maintain the lifestyle that she became accustomed to during the marriage. However, this term is rarely used in Virginia family law.  Instead, the statutes and legal practitioners have adopted the term “spousal support,” which is a more modern connotation.  Using the term “alimony” is more likely to invoke ideas of wealthy men supporting their ex-wives for decades after the divorce.


What Is Spousal Support?

Spousal support and alimony are synonymous, but the former term is more gender-neutral, and different jurisdictions may default to using one term over the other.  The use of “spousal support” rather than alimony generally envisions a more balanced approach to evaluating both parties’ earning capacities, and a presumption that a “permanent” payment situation is not likely in most circumstances.

The length of time that a former spouse may receive spousal support payments varies for any given case; in Virginia, there is no “rule” that you will receive support for half the length of the marriage, or that you will receive “lifetime” support if you’ve been married for 20 years or more. There are four main types of spousal support including:

  • Temporary or “pendente lite” spousal support:

     It can often take a year or more between a divorce suit being filed and the divorce being finalized–whether by a settlement agreement or a court determination. Pendente lite (Latin for “pending litigation”) support is what may be paid in the months between the filing of a Complaint for Divorce and the entry of a Final Order of Divorce.  Sometimes the parties agree on the amount, or they may appear in court in order for a judge to determine the temporary amount to be paid.   

For families with gross monthly income under $10,000, there is a statutory guideline calculation for the determination of temporary spousal support.  If you and your spouse have minor children, the presumptive amount is equal to 26% of the paying spouse’s monthly gross income, minus 58% of the receiving spouse’s monthly gross income.  If you and your spouse do not have any minor children, then the presumptive amount is equal to 27% of the paying spouse’s monthly gross income, minus 50% of the recipient spouse’s monthly gross income.

 For families with gross monthly income over $10,000, the determination is made based on the needs of the recipient spouse balanced against the ability of the other spouse to pay.  However, when evaluating what may be a fair amount to agree on in lieu of seeking court intervention, most attorneys will use the presumptive calculation as a starting point in an effort to reach an efficient resolution.

  • “Limited duration” or “rehabilitative” spousal support:

     Limited duration spousal support applies to marriages that were fairly short, but the parties have very different incomes, or where the parties have similar earning capacities but perhaps one was out of the workforce for a short time to raise children.  The amount of support in these circumstances is intended to be a limited recognition of the lifestyle enjoyed during the marriage, or a way to assist a stay-at-home spouse during the time it will likely take to re-enter into the workforce.  

  • “Undefined duration” or “permanent” spousal support: 

     If your marriage has exceeded 20 years, or come close to it, particularly if one spouse has been out of the workforce for a significant period of time to raise children or otherwise support the breadwinning spouse, it is more likely that a judge will order spousal support without a defined duration–which simply means “If and when circumstances materially change in the future, either party may ask for the amount of support to be decreased, increased, or terminated.”  While a paying spouse may not quit their job or voluntarily reduce their income by taking a dream job with a 50% salary cut, there is a statutory presumption that retiring at the age of 67 constitutes a material change in circumstances which may justify a modification or termination of spousal support, depending on the circumstances.

No matter what type of spousal support is awarded or agreed to by the parties, support obligations automatically terminate if either party dies, or if the recipient remarries.  If the recipient begins cohabiting with another person in a relationship analogous to marriage for a year or more, the paying spouse may ask the court to terminate the support obligation, but it is not automatic.  


What Is Child Support?

Child support is nearly always structured as a monthly or bi-weekly payment that is meant to cover the basic needs and expenses of a minor child.  Both parents are expected to contribute to the financial support of their minor children; but if one parent has the children in his or her custody a majority of the time, and/or if one parent earns significantly more than the other, then it is likely that one parent will need to make an “adjusting” payment to the other to equalize the differences.   

Child support is intended to cover the basic necessities for raising a child, including the following: 

  • Shelter
  • Food
  • School expenses including supplies
  • Extra-curricular activity expenses including sports and summer camps
  • Clothes
  • Toys and books

However, when parents have shared physical custody arrangements, they often agree to share expenses for things like extra-curricular activities, tutors, clothes, and school supplies.  Also, parents have a statutory obligation to share any unreimbursed medical expenses for minor children in proportion to their incomes. 

Child support is always modifiable in the event of a future material change in circumstances, and it can be automatically deducted from the paying spouse’s payroll deposits in most circumstances.


Contact Us

If you have any questions about spousal support or child support, or you would like to discuss any other matter with our wonderful and professional family law team, you can call us at 703-522-8100 or contact us directly on our website here

What Is the Difference Between Alimony, Spousal Support, and Child Support?

Mullett Dove & Bradley Family Law, PLLC is ready to answer all of your questions. A personal consultation will give you the understanding you need to make informed decisions about your future.