Understanding the Difference Between Spousal Support and Child Support in Virginia

If you need to make payments to a former spouse for spousal support and child support, it might seem like those payments are pretty similar. However, they are quite different under Virginia law and it is important to understand the distinctions.

Knowing when and why you are required to pay these types of support can help you anticipate your future obligations and provide an idea of when you might want to seek a modification.

Spousal Support and Child Support are Based on Different Assumptions

In Virginia, both parents are expected to provide financial support for their children. Since it is almost impossible to find a situation where both parents earn exactly the same amount of money and provide a home for the child exactly the same amount of time, the parent who earns more and lives with the child for less time usually ends up paying child support to the other parent. Although amounts might change, the obligation to support a child generally remains constant until the child is 18 or graduates high school.

Spousal support, also known as alimony, is not based on that same automatic duty. The court does not assume that one former spouse will need to support the other. Instead, the spouse who wants support will generally need to show why fairness dictates that the other spouse should pay support.

Spousal Support is Flexible

Divorcing couples are free to make their own arrangements for spousal support, and if the agreement is truly voluntary, a court is likely to approve. If they cannot reach an agreement on their own, the court will look at a number of factors to determine whether one spouse should receive support and how long that obligation should continue.

Among other things, the court must consider:

  • How long the marriage lasted
  • Whether one spouse committed adultery
  • The couple’s standard of living while married
  • Age and condition of each partner
  • Whether they have a child with special needs that prevents one parent from working
  • Each partners’ financial resources
  • Contributions to family life
  • Earning capacity and employment opportunities, including absence from the job market

If a couple has been married for a long time and one spouse focused on the home while the other built up their career, then the court is more likely to award alimony to the stay-home spouse on the grounds that they sacrificed their earning potential to provide a quality home life for the family. That alimony may continue for a defined length of time, or, if the receiving spouse has health needs or age concerns that prevent them from working, support may be ordered to continue indefinitely.

When a marriage is shorter, alimony is likely to be awarded only for a short time—if at all—to give the lower-earning spouse time to build up their earning potential. Many factors go into alimony decisions and everything is at the discretion of the judge.

Child Support is Much More Rigid

By contrast, child support is much more predictable and rigid. State laws include formulas determining how much support a child should receive based on parents’ incomes.

The focus is always on the best interests of the child rather than the parents. That means if parents come to their own agreement, the court might not approve it if the arrangement does not provide adequate support according to guidelines.

The Court Needs to Hear Your Side of the Story When it Comes to Alimony and Child Support

Neither child support nor spousal support payments should leave you without funds to meet your basic needs. An experienced family law attorney can ensure that the court understands your circumstances so that you can benefit from arrangements that are fair.

If you need to establish or modify support amounts, contact the dedicated team at DiPietro Law Group, PLLC to find out how we can protect your interests.

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