The determination of an alimony award is dependent on numerous factors, including a couple's standard of living during the marriage. A couple's standard of living is largely dependent on their income and properties, which allow them to live a certain lifestyle. In the event of divorce, both spouses should have the means to continue living a comparable lifestyle. The word “comparable” is important here, because most divorced individuals won't have access to the exact same income and assets as they did while they were married. It is, however, unfair for one spouse to live in virtual poverty while the other continues to enjoy a comfortable, perhaps even luxurious, lifestyle.
One of the trickiest aspects of determining the marital lifestyle is that it's supposed to be based on the way that the couple actually lived, irrespective of their available incomes. Let's take, for example, a couple that lives in an expensive house that was gifted to them by their rich parents. The parents also gave the couple many expensive gifts over the years, including financial support, which helped them to live a lifestyle that was way beyond their means. You can imagine the problem this situation presents when it comes to the calculation of alimony. The spouse who is seeking support will ask for an amount that will help him or her maintain a comparable lifestyle, but there is no reasonable way that the other spouse cans afford such a high payment.
This is where the courts have to use discretion and reason to determine an alimony award that is fair to both spouses, i.e,, one that allows the supported spouse to live a decent quality of life without financially crippling the other spouse. A recent decision in the appellate case of Ponzetto v. Barbetti also points out the need to examine whether a lifestyle was excessively inflated based on the couple's available assets. Ponzetto v. Barbetti involved an alimony dispute between spouses who had lived an incredibly lavish lifestyle that included exotic vacations and numerous luxury cars. This was in spite of the fact that their once successful business had suffered greatly during the 2008 Recession. The trial judge's ruling stated that the “artificial lifestyle” created by “their irresponsible spending and outlandish behavior” should not be the basis of the alimony award, and instead chose to base the amount on their lifestyle during the first 13 years of the marriage. The judge's decision was upheld by the Appellate Division, meaning that a judge has the discretion to base an alimony award on the earlier years of a marriage rather than the latter.
As you can see, determining a couple's “standard of living” is not an exact science. Each marriage has its own set of unique circumstances, which must be examined along with factors such as each spouse's current income, earning history, and financial/ non-financial contributions to the marriage. For more information on your alimony rights and legal options, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.