"O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life's as cheap as beast's: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear'st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm."
King Lear, Act 2, Scene 4
Alimony, unlike child support, is more art than science. And whether a party will receive any depends on two main considerations: need and ability to pay.
"Need" in the alimony context -- as for King Lear above -- is not measured by what one needs to avoid starvation. "Need" for alimony is measured by the standard of living the parties enjoyed during their marriage. For example, one does not "need" to take vacations to Europe or the Caribbean every three months to live, but if that was routine during the marriage then the lower-earning spouse will "need" enough alimony to continue taking those trips post-divorce.
Establishing a need for alimony, however, is the easy part. The more difficult challenge is proving the higher-earning spouse has the ability to pay what is "needed." Often the answer is clearly "no." Or the higher earning spouse goes to great lengths to make it appear as though the answer is no. If the court cannot be persuaded that there is an ability to pay then there will be no alimony or significantly less than what is "needed."
Another limit on the amount of an alimony award is the statutory limit. By law the most a high-earning party can be ordered to pay in alimony is 35% of the difference between high-earners' income and the income of the dependent spouse. The statute actually states that alimony will be 30 to 35% of that difference, assuming, again, both need and ability to pay are proven.
Even after need, ability to pay, and a percentage have been established, the question of "how long" remains. That, again, is determined by a statute which imposes limits on the length of alimony based on the length of the marriage and on the type of alimony being paid. What people generally mean when they say alimony -- monthly payments from an ex-spouse for some period of years -- is what the law calls "general term" alimony. Alimony can also be "rehabilitative," meaning designed just to get a party through some retraining, or "transitional" meaning easing them back to the lower living standard they had prior to the marriage or intended to "reimburse" the recipient for some contribution to the marriage or success of the other spouse. Transitional and reimbursement alimony are only ordered in marraiges of 5 years or less. And "rehabilitative" tends to arise in shorter marriages as well. "General term" alimony is typically paid longer but is again limited by statute based on the length of the marriage. The limits are:
Marriages less than five years long: no more than half the number of months the parties were married.
Marriages of more than five years, but less than ten: no more than 60% of the number of months married.
More than ten years, but less than fifteen: 70% of the number of months married.
More than fifteen years, but less than twenty: 80% of the number of months married.
Marriages longer than twenty years have no upper limit, though the payor is presumptively permitted to stop paying on reaching full retirement age.
The statute setting these limits does provide that a judge can exceed them on finding that it is justified in the unique circumstances of a given case, but that is rare. In the vast majority of cases, those limits will be enforced by the courts.
Alimony also can be terminated early by the remarriage of the recipient or the death of either party. It can further be suspended or terminated if the recipient cohabits with another adult. Alimony suspended for that reason can be reinstated later if the cohabitation ends, but the ultimate time limit will not be extended.
The bottom line is that alimony is a highly complex issue that is often fought over, at length, in court. Whether you will receive it, or have to pay it, is something no lawyer can guess at without knowing the particular facts of your individual case. Do not make any decisions about it until you make an appointment and talk to a lawyer about it.