For reasons that are only marginally explicable, South Carolina attorneys and judges are reluctant to issue orders or enter agreements that combine rehabilitative alimony with permanent alimony. However, there are common circumstances in which a combined alimony award makes sense.
Permanent periodic alimony is designed to allow a supported spouse to maintain the marital lifestyle in a long-term manner. Rehabilitative alimony is designed to carry a supported spouse for a period of time while he or she “rehabilitates” and can earn greater income. However often supported spouses can only partially rehabilitate. Circumstances might prevent that spouse from earning at his or her full capacity for a period of time (which justifies rehabilitative alimony) but even when that period is over that spouse might not be able to maintain the marital lifestyle (which justifies permanent alimony). This often arises when the supported spouse cares for young children, which limits career opportunities or makes full-time employment not cost effective. It also arises when the supported spouse needs time for career development or education.
Typically in this situation the family court orders, or the parties agree, to a strictly permanent alimony award with an understanding that the supported spouse’s “rehabilitation” will be a changed circumstance, allowing the supporting spouse to seek an alimony reduction. There are two problems with this approach. First, it discourages the rehabilitating spouse from rehabilitating. Second, it requires a whole subsequent litigation, often mere years after the divorce.
A combined support award limits these problems. As an example of how this combined support works, consider a stay-at-home mother who worked in nursing until her two children were born. She needs $5,000.00 a month to maintain the marital lifestyle and will be getting $1,000.00 per month in child support. The children are pre-school age and she can work part time, making $1,500.00 per month) with minimal child care expenses but will have substantially greater day care expenses, and more difficultly balancing work and child care, if she immediately works full-time. However, in four years, she can work full-time, making $3,000.00 per month with minimal child care, and be better able to balance work and family.
In a typical scenario, the family court either awards her $2,500.00 per month in permanent alimony (actually its pre-tax equivalent but let’s ignore taxes in this example) or imputes her an earning capacity of $3,000.00 and awards her $1,000.00 per month in permanent alimony. If, instead, the court awarded (or the parties’ agreed to) $1,500.00 per month in rehabilitative alimony and an additional $1,000.00 per month in permanent alimony, she would have four years to resume working at her full capacity (and would have sufficient support to maintain herself on part-time employment in the interim) with incentive to partially rehabilitate in that period.
When a supported spouse needs time to “rehabilitate” but even rehabilitation won’t enable him or her to maintain the marital lifestyle, a combination of rehabilitative and permanent alimony is often more just and prudent than a set amount of permanent alimony and a subsequent fight over partial rehabilitation.