What’s the Difference Between Spousal Support and Child Support?

This article is for informational purposes only and is current as of March 11, 2022. It’s always best to speak to a legal professional if you need assistance.

Whether you’re thinking about getting a divorce or in the process of separating, you most likely have questions about your financial future. Going from two incomes to one can be frightening for many. Yet ironically, money is a popular reason couples divorce.

This blog article answers several questions you may have, such as, “What’s the difference between spousal support (alimony) and child support?” Spousal support and child support are two types of support payments paid by one partner after a divorce or separation.

Spousal support, another term for alimony, is paid directly for the ex-spouse’s benefit after divorce. Child support is a payment to the custodial parent by the non-custodial parent that goes towards expenses for the child or children.

What Is Spousal Support For?

Spousal support, previously referred to as alimony, is financial support paid by one spouse to the other after a divorce. So, what’s the difference between spousal support and child support? Spousal support limits any unfair economic effects on one of the adult parties involved. Payments are designed to continue and guarantee the non- or low-earning spouse’s income.

Spousal support is a more gender-neutral term, whereas alimony is commonly thought to be a man paying support for an ex-wife. Often, an ex-husband paid an ex-wife alimony after divorce because the ex-wife didn’t have the means or work experience to support herself independently. 

Nowadays, either partner could pay spousal support to the other. Spousal support is not guaranteed in each case of divorce. It is reviewed on a case-by-case basis in a courtroom setting. Once the spousal support is granted, the receiving partner will receive the payments by cash, check, or money order every month.

This money can be used for living expenses such as rent/mortgage payments, utilities, transportation expenses, food, clothing, and more. Most spousal support agreements do not require the receiving spouse to show where they spend their spousal support.

How Can I Receive Spousal Support?

Spousal support is only granted to those who went through a legal divorce. Separated couples or couples who were never married cannot file for spousal support. Most states require you to be married for at least two or three years to qualify for spousal support post-divorce. For spousal support laws by state, see here.

To receive spousal support, you must be incapable of financially sustaining yourself after the divorce. You can ask for spousal support as a part of the divorce proceeding or afterward.

Some couples can agree between them, while many others resort to battling it out in court. If you can do the former, you can ask the presiding judge to add the support as part of the final agreement.

If you need to resort to court proceedings, the judge will determine whether you’re eligible for spousal support. Each state has different statutes when it comes to spousal support, but most will consider your:

  • Age
  • Income
  • Employment
  • Property or other assets
  • Educational/work experience
  • Living expenses
  • Previous marital lifestyle
  • Extramarital affairs, if relevant
  • New partner, if relevant

In many states, spousal support isn’t granted if the requesting spouse cheated during the marriage. In addition, if the requesting partner lives with a new partner, they may be ineligible for spousal support payments.

The judge will also consider your ex-partner’s income, expenses, and living arrangements when deciding on spousal support.

How Much Spousal Support Can I Receive?

There are different methods for calculating spousal support. Still, most will allow up to 40% of the paying partner’s net income towards spousal payments. This total is calculated after any child support payments are made. The judge will also consider whether the paying spouse can afford to pay the support and keep their lifestyle intact, so this number is just a ballpark measure.

Let’s look at an example. A and B are married with two young children. They divorce, and A has full custody of the children, but A does not work and must watch them every day. B works and makes $5,000 per month. B must pay A $1,600 in child support monthly, but A says their expenses are $2,000 per month.

The judge will analyze each side’s expenses. If A presents a clear budget highlighting a need for more financial assistance, and if B can afford an additional spousal payment, the judge can award A spousal support of $400 per month. So now A will receive $2,000 from B monthly – $1,600 in child support plus $400 in spousal support.

As of 2019, spousal support payments are not counted as taxable income per the IRS. Therefore, the paying parent cannot claim these payments as deductibles either. However, if the divorce happened before 2019, these payments are calculated as part of gross income and are deductible by the payer.

How Long Will I Receive Spousal Support?

The presiding judge determines spousal support time frames. For example, they could be indefinite until the receiving partner dies or remarries or up until a set date.

Many judges can factor in the total time a couple was married and assign spousal payments for half of that time. So, for example, if you were married for 10 years then divorced, you might receive spousal payments for five years after the divorce.

On average, spousal payments are made for 10-20 years. But, of course, this can change substantially depending on the factors of your marriage and life circumstances.

What Is Child Support For?

Child support – also called child maintenance in some states – is a regular payment made by a non-custodial parent to the custodial parent for the financial benefit of their child(ren) after separation or divorce. 

Couples do not have to be married initially to exchange child support. Still, the paying parent must be legally recognized as the child’s parent or guardian.

So, what’s the difference between spousal support and child support? Simply put, these payments are to support the child and not their custodial parent – although the parent may benefit as a nondirect result.

After a divorce, the custodial parent will have more expenses than the non-custodial parent. This includes clothing, food, school supplies, educational costs, larger housing, increased utility bills, and transportation expenses. Child support is used to ensure the child’s basic needs are covered and live in a safe environment. Unfortunately, most states do not require the receiving parent to show how child support is spent.

Child support is usually provided monthly through a check, money order, or cash. However, if it is state-mandated, the money could also be retained from intercepted federal payments, withheld tax refunds, or liens on their property.

Like spousal payments, child support payments are not counted as taxable income if the divorce or separation occurred in 2019 or later, as per the IRS. The paying parent cannot claim these payments as deductibles either. For divorces or separations that happened before 2019, these payments are calculated as part of gross income and are deductible by the payer.

How Can I Get Child Support?

You must be the child/children’s custodial parent to get child support. This means you have primary physical custody. Some joint-custody cases may qualify for child support, but this process usually becomes more complicated. 

Unless the parental rights have been legally terminated, every parent must financially contribute in some way to raising their child. You can either arrange for child support with your ex independently or have a judge set it so that it’s legally binding.

You can contact your state or tribal child support agency to start the legal process. Then, gather the supporting documentation you’ll need with your application. Finally, complete the application with your state. If your local office cannot help you collect your child support payments, contact the Office of Child Support Enforcement.

Many parents have difficulties collecting child support – especially if the paying parent is absent or unresponsive since most child support is court-ordered. If a parent faults on (doesn’t make) their payments, they are found in contempt of court and summoned. If they don’t appear in court, a warrant is issued for their arrest.

How Much Child Support Can I Receive?

The average monthly child support payment in the U.S. is $430 per month. The amount of child support warranted depends on the state, the living expenses of the custodial parent and children, and the non-custodial parent’s income.

Most states will multiple the non-custodial parent’s salary by a certain percentage, depending on how many children they are supporting, determining the child support payments.

For information on how child support is calculated by state, see here.

Can I Receive Child Support and Spousal Support at the Same Time?

Many families receive both child support and spousal support payments consecutively. A judge determines this. The total of both support payments will not exceed your necessary monthly expenses. Be sure to present a detailed budget if seeking out both forms of support before the presiding judge.

Moving On

The entire process involved with child and spousal support can be stressful. Hopefully, this article helped answer critical questions you or your loved ones may have about the differences between spousal support and child support.

If you find that money is tight with or without child support or spousal support, you might qualify for free or heavily discounted wireless service. Lifeline is a federal benefit program that helps keep low-income consumers connected to what matters most. Click here to find out more and apply for this valuable benefit.