Pennsylvania divorce: alimony law remains traditional

Pennsylvania still allows alimony to be determined largely by judicial discretion.

Nationwide, legislators, academics, advocates and family lawyers are in an ongoing, serious discussion about alimony reform that has resulted in major changes in a few states like Massachusetts and New Jersey. Despite reformers' concerns about judicial discretion, award unpredictability and lifetime spousal support orders that do not take retirement into consideration, the main Pennsylvania alimony statute has not been amended since 1998. Judicial discretion remains key in Pennsylvania divorce when alimony is at issue.

Upon entry of a divorce decree, a Pennsylvania judge may incorporate an alimony agreement negotiated between the parties, or otherwise order reasonable alimony if he or she finds it necessary, considering all relevant factors, including a preset list of 17 factors:

  • Relative earnings and earning capacities
  • Ages and physical, mental and emotional health of each
  • All income sources
  • Inheritances and "expectancies" of each
  • Length of marriage
  • Contribution to "education, training or increased earning power" by one to the other
  • Impact of serving as a custodial parent on "earning power, expenses or financial obligations"
  • Marital standard of living
  • Educational levels and time it would take for alimony recipient to get sufficient education or training for appropriate employment
  • Assets and liabilities of each
  • Property brought into marriage by each
  • Homemaker contributions
  • Relative needs
  • Marital misconduct until date of separation and spousal abuse
  • Tax ramifications
  • Whether alimony recipient has enough property after property is divided to meet his or her reasonable needs
  • Whether alimony recipient is "incapable of self-support" through appropriate work

If alimony after the marriage ends is found necessary, all relevant factors, including the 17 listed, are to be reconsidered to determine the "nature, amount, duration and manner of payment of alimony." Duration may be for a definite period of time or ongoing indefinitely, but remarriage of the recipient or cohabitation with someone of the opposite gender serves as a basis to terminate alimony from a previous marriage.

The judge must describe in writing as part of the alimony order the reasons for his or her decision, including the amount.

Either party can later file a petition to change the terms of an alimony award if he or she has "changed circumstances ... of a substantial and continuing nature."

With offices in Harrisburg and Hershey, Pennsylvania, the family lawyers of Purcell, Krug & Haller represent divorce clients in matters of alimony and related issues.