Virginia law outlines a clear schedule of monthly basic child support obligations, so people going through a divorce often assume that a similar schedule is available for spousal support or alimony obligations. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Instead, the law indicates the factors that courts should take into consideration when making spousal support decisions.
Factors That Influence Spousal Support Calculations
Virginia Code § 20-107.1 lists 13 factors that courts must take into consideration when determining whether to award spousal support, and if so, the amount and duration of a spousal support award. These factors include the standard of living established during the marriage, the duration of the marriage, and the age, health, and earning capacities of the spouses. Most importantly, the court must consider each spouse's income, financial obligations, and the needs of the party seeking support. When calculating each spouse’s income, the court will consider all financial resources and income sources available to the parties. This is not limited to paychecks from work, but also income from investments, pensions and retirement funds.
While it is important to be aware of these factors, they do not indicate exactly how spousal support payments will be calculated. Indeed, no set formula exists for the calculation of spousal support amounts. Methodologies vary from courtroom to courtroom and from judge to judge. The one exception is the so-called Fairfax Formula, as shown in Virginia Code § 16.1-278.17:1, which only applies to temporary, or pendente lite, spousal support. Courts will not use this formula in the determination of a final spousal support award.
There also is no set time frame for the duration of an award of spousal support. While many believe there is a rule of thumb that spousal support will be awarded for half of the length of the marriage, this is not codified anywhere in Virginia law nor are courts required to follow this guideline. Instead, courts will look to the 20-107.1 factors to determine if support should be time-limited to allow a spouse to obtain additional income or if it should be for an undefined duration of time. Even if support is awarded for an undefined period of time, either spouse may petition the court for a modification or termination of support based upon a material change in circumstances.
Not all divorce cases go before a judge, however. Divorcing spouses are at liberty to use the same factors and more to determine by agreement whether spousal support will be paid, how much the payments will be, and whether or not support will be modifiable.