Florida’s divorce law follows the “equitable distribution” model for property division. Essentially, this means the couple must divide their assets in a way that meets standards of fairness. Sometimes this quest for fairness leads a court to impose an order for spousal support.

Spousal support, also known as alimony, is one of the more controversial aspects of divorce law in Florida. To understand the idea behind it, first we should discuss equitable distribution a little more.

Note that “equitable” does not mean equal. Under Florida law, courts start with the idea that the marital property should be divided 50-50, but then have to consider a long list of other factors, such as the duration of the marriage, the non-marital economic resources of the parties, the contributions of the spouses toward each other’s educational opportunities, and any interruption in the careers or education of either party. There are several other factors, as well.

Once it has considered all the factors, the court may decide that, instead of splitting things 50-50, an equitable division of the marital property in one particular case will look more like a 60-40 split, or a 70-30 split. For example, if one spouse was in training to be a nurse, but gave up her education and her promising career in order to stay home with the couple’s young children, the court may determine that fairness demands she get a larger share of the marital property than the other spouse, who continued to pursue a lucrative career outside the home.

However, in the example above, giving the stay-at-home mother a larger share of the marital property might not be enough to reach the most equitable solution. Because she gave up her education and career, she won’t be able to just go out and get a nursing job as soon as the marriage is over. She may use her 70% share of the marital property just getting a new home for herself and care for her children, and then she’ll have to go back to school or find a lower-paying, entry-level job. Meanwhile, the other spouse is able to continue earning money just as before, and he’ll soon replenish the assets he lost in the divorce.

In such a case, a court might order the high-earning spouse to pay spousal support to the stay-at-home spouse, at least until she gets her own reliable source of income.

In the past, spousal support was common, and it was almost always paid by men to their ex-wives. Now that more women are in the workforce and able to earn their own livings, spousal support is less common, and it can be paid to men or women, depending on the circumstances.

Support comes in various forms. Sometimes one party has a permanent order to make payments, and sometimes the order is for a limited time. Some alimony orders call for monthly or semi-monthly payments, while others can be paid in a lump sum.

Sometimes the court orders support, and sometimes the couple agrees to it under the terms of their divorce settlement. If the court orders it, alimony payments go through a government agency known as the State Disbursement Unit. Either type may be enforceable by law, but the governmental nature of court-ordered alimony makes enforcement somewhat stronger.