Understanding Illinois spousal support

Changes to the Illinois spousal support laws may make it easier to determine payments when appropriate.

In 2014, the Illinois legislature passed Public Act 98-0961, which brought about sweeping changes to the state's Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act. The new laws went into effect in 2015. For the first time, the statutory sections governing spousal support now include a formula for helping Illinois family court judges determine an appropriate amount of support (previously known as "alimony") that should be paid between divorcing spouses.

The first step: determining if support is warranted

Before a specific amount of spousal maintenance can be set in a given family law case, the presiding judge must first make a determination as to whether or not an award is warranted given the facts at hand. Section 504(a) of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (750 ILCS 5/504(a)) provides a list of factors that should be weighed when an award of support has been requested. These include:

  • Income and property of each party (including the assets and debts that will be apportioned to each in the marital property settlement)
  • Needs and standard of living of each party as established during the relationship
  • Relative earning capacities
  • Whether one party's earning capacity or job prospects were curtailed by focusing on domestic responsibilities during the marriage
  • How long it would take a stay-at-home or lesser-earning spouse to become financially independent
  • Length of the marriage
  • Age, mental health and physical condition of both spouses
  • Tax consequences of the marital property division settlement
  • Sacrifices one party made so that the other could pursue career or educational opportunities
  • Preexisting valid, enforceable agreement between the parties regarding maintenance payments
  • Other factors that the court deems relevant (for example, if one spouse is the primary caregiver for a dependent/special needs loved one, it could be difficult for that spouse to also work full-time outside the home)

After a determination has been made that one spouse is entitled to maintenance, the judge can set the appropriate amount by using the newly adopted formula. Judges can deviate from the formula in special circumstances, but they must fully explain their reasoning and should be aware that unwarranted deviations could be subject to challenge.

The formula: setting the amount and duration of support

Section 504(b-1) of the Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act contains the formula for determining the amount of an appropriate alimony/maintenance award. For couples making less than $250,000 combined income, the formula "caps" support at no more than 40 percent of their total gross. As for the actual maintenance amount, that is determined by taking 30 percent of the paying spouse's gross income and subtracting 20 percent of the receiving spouse's gross income; the difference is the amount due in support.

This is well illustrated with an example. Jack has an annual gross income of $100,000, and Jill (who was primarily a homemaker during the marriage but worked a few days a month) has an annual gross income of $10,000. According to the formula, Jill would be entitled to:

$30,000 (30% of Jack's gross income of $100,000) - $2,000 (20% of Jill's gross income of $10,000) = $28,000

If Jill receives the entire $28,000 per year from Jack, then her new income would be $38,000. Since 40 percent of the couple's combined gross income of $110,000 would be $44,000, Jill is below the statutory "cap" for maintenance amounts.

How long should support last?

The statutory formula also provides a way to determine how long maintenance payments should last. The length of the marriage is the key factor here, and the range in years of the marriage is used to find how long the support obligation will last. For shorter marriages (those lasting less than 5 years), the support amount is multiplied by .20, and for slightly longer marriages (5-10 years), the support amount is multiplied by .40. When marriages have lasted longer than that, the time of support likewise increases: when the couple was married between 10 and 15 years, the amount is multiplied by .60, and between 15 and 20 years is by .80. A judge has the discretion to make an award of support for a marriage of longer than 20 years permanent or for as long as the marriage itself lasted.

Applying the law to your case

As you can see, spousal support awards are highly fact-specific. Also, unlike child support awards, they are not guaranteed in any divorce action. To better understand if you are entitled to spousal maintenance as part of your Illinois marital dissolution action, consult an experienced family law attorney like those at the Elgin law offices of Robert A. Chapski, Ltd. Call the firm 847-742-1642 or send them an email today.