What it is:
Alimony is a series of payments made to an ex-spouse or separated spouse according to a divorce decree or separation agreement.
How it works (Example):
In general, a spouse must have been financially dependent on the other spouse for most of the marriage to receive alimony. The calculations and standard amounts vary by state, but each party's ability to earn money, the length of the marriage, the conduct of the parties, and health and age all affect the amount.
Alimony payments are usually made monthly. For tax purposes, noncash payments and voluntary extra payments do not count as alimony. However, payments to a third party on behalf of the ex- or separated spouse sometimes qualify as alimony (medical expenses, housing costs, tuition, etc.), however.
Why it Matters:
From a financial perspective, alimony matters because it has significant tax consequences for both the payer and the receiver. Most notably, alimony is tax-deductible for the payer and taxable for the payee. Because of this tax deduction (and the resulting temptation to mask all payments to an ex as alimony), the IRS applies two tests to ensure that the payments are not really child support or property settlement payments (which are not deductible). For this reason, alimony payments should be explicitly described in the divorce decree or separation agreement, and they must be labeled as alimony. Otherwise, the IRS may tax child support as alimony.
Also, alimony payments to an ex- or separated spouse typically only count as alimony for tax purposes in years when the parties did not file a joint tax return or live in the same dwelling. If alimony payments decrease or terminate during the first three years, filers may be able to recapture the taxes paid (and deductions claimed) under the IRS's recapture rule. In any case, both the alimony payer and alimony payee must file an IRS Form 1040 rather than a 1040A or 1040EZ if alimony is involved.