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Law Matters / No formula to estimate alimony

Published 11:02 am, Tuesday, October 2, 2012
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How much alimony will I get? How much will I have to pay? For how long?

Many people divorcing in Connecticut are under the impression there are answers to these questions. There aren't. And don't let anyone tell you there are.

Every case is different. There is no formula or rule of thumb. You cannot go by what the "Greek Chorus" (your friends and family) tell you. You cannot go by what your Aunt Martha or her best friend got. Nor is there an answer to how much alimony you will pay or for how long. When you start a sentence with, "Well, I heard that so and so got" and think it applies to you, you are misinformed.

Connecticut family courts are courts of "equity," which means courts of fairness. Each judge will have his or her own idea of what is fair in any given case. The statute that governs alimony (46b-82) sets out a list of factors for the court to consider but does not weight any one factor more than any other.

What are some of the factors the courts must consider?

"The length of the marriage, the causes for the annulment, dissolution of the marriage or legal separation, the age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate and needs of each of the parties and the award, if any, which the court may make pursuant to section 46b-81 (distribution of property), and, in the case of a parent to whom the custody of minor children has been awarded, the desirability of such parent's securing employment."

The factors are to be viewed as a mosaic, or blended together. For every case you look at, when you put all the factors together, no two judges are likely to come up with the same alimony numbers every time. To ask a court to assign an alimony award can be like playing roulette. Unlike child support awards, for which there are guidelines, alimony has no set formula.

Be very wary of anyone who tells you there is a formula or rule of thumb. Not every alimony amount is awarded for half the length of the marriage. Many will tell you a 10-year marriage will get you five years alimony. While that might be a starting point in some cases, it is not an automatic rule.

Some may tell you that fault plays a big factor and gets you more alimony. It doesn't automatically work that way. Connecticut is a "no-fault" state, which means anyone who wants out of a marriage for any reason at any time may seek a divorce. Alleging "irretrievable breakdown" usually ends the marriage. Even if the other spouse doesn't want the divorce or doesn't think the marriage is broken, the court has the power to grant the divorce if it finds there has been an irretrievable breakdown. The courts generally assume someone or something caused the breakdown, or there wouldn't be a divorce. Thus, fault may not always be significant in determining alimony. So don't focus in on "cause" and see it as the one factor that outweighs all others.

The bottom line is when you are trying to figure out how much you will get, or how much you will pay, don't listen to the "Greek Chorus" no matter how convincing they sound, or how they swear it's the truth. It is wiser to listen to lawyers who deal with family matters day in and day out for the answers to these questions.

Susan F. Filan is a lawyer with a practice in Westport. She is a former state prosecutor and has been a legal analyst for NBC News, MSNBC and CNN.