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Divorce in Alabama

Think of this as Alabama Divorce 101. There's much more complete information on legal issues if you want it, but this is a basic introduction.

What You Have to Have

To get a divorce in Alabama, you have to satisfy the requirements for jurisdiction and residence. Basically, that means that at least one of you must have lived in Alabama for six months (or both of you need to reside in Alabama).

Thereís a similar question about the right county to file in -- the term for this is venue (pronounced "VIN-you"). If youíre the one filing the divorce, you can file in the county where your spouse lives, or in the county where the two of you lived when you separated. If your spouse doesnít live in Alabama, you have to file in the county where you live. If this is an uncontested divorce, the two of you can elect to file in any county you wish.

Alabama requires a 30-day waiting period after the complaint for divorce is filed before the divorce can be effective. Because of the 30-day waiting period, people sometimes decide to file the complaint even while they're negotiating the terms of an uncontested divorce.

Grounds for Divorce

You really don't need to spend much time worrying about the grounds for divorce in Alabama. There are several grounds for divorce set out in the statute -- but most of them require a finding of fault on the part of one of the parties -- things like adultery, abandonment, habitual drunkenness or drug use, or violence against the spouse. Click here for the statute on the grounds for divorce.

The vast majority of divorces these days are granted on the so-called "no fault" grounds of incompatibility and irretrievable breakdown. These are actually two separate grounds in the statutes, but nobody seems to know the difference, and youíll hear lawyers use the two terms interchangeably.

From time to time, somebody suggests that we should do away with no-fault divorce Ė that we should require that one of the spouses prove that the other has done something wrong before they can get a divorce. Until that happens, though, no-fault divorce is the law in Alabama, and thereís not much to talk about when it comes to the grounds for divorce.

The important question in this area usually revolves around whether the divorce will happen -- that is, if one of you wants the divorce and the other wants to stay married, can one of you keep the divorce from happening? The short answer is no. A spouse who opposes a divorce can make it take longer, make it hurt more, and make it cost a lot more, but neither spouse can keep a divorce from happening if the other spouse is determined to divorce.

How Property Gets Divided

The first thing youíll want to know is that Alabama does not assume that all your property should be divided 50/50. Alabamaís whatís called an equitable distribution state. That means the division of assets and liabilities should be fair and equitable, but not necessarily equal.

So how does a court decide how to divvy everything up? In a short-term marriage, the division of property is often pretty simple -- itís just a matter of giving back to each spouse what he or she brought to the marriage -- and dividing up between the spouses the little bit of property or debt that accumulated during the marriage itself. With a longer term marriage, though, property division can get complicated.

In either case, thereís no hard and fast formula -- itís more a sense of who contributed the property, coupled with who needs help the most, sometimes coupled with whoís done something bad, like adultery or violence. If this sounds gooshy, it really is a gooshy process.

Itís also tricky, because judges have broad discretion to decide how to divide everything up. Because judges donít know the particulars about how the spouses hold property or what the tax impact might be of selling a particular asset, sometimes the distribution a judge orders may not be the best thing for either spouse.

How Child Custody Works

I first have to tell you an idiosyncrasy of mine: I hate the word "custody." It makes it sounds like the kids are property -- like Mom and Dad are fighting over them the same way they might argue over who gets the microwave. But Iím afraid weíre stuck with the term. Legislators use it, judges use it, lawyers use it, and you and your spouse will probably end up using it. So how do we decide custody in Alabama?

Theoretically, and I emphasize theoretically, Mom and Dad stand on equal footing in the determination of custody. As a practical matter, though, Moms are always favored when there's a dispute about custody. Particularly for young children, a father who's jockeying for custody over Mom's objections has to prove one or both of two things:

  • The mother has done and is likely to continue to do something that places the children in danger; or
  • The mother has done and is likely to continue to do something that sends to the children a signal about how to live their lives that's just dreadfully out of whack.
The question of who should have the children turns on a number of factors, such as who gets along better with the kids, and whoís better able to take care of them. Courts will look at whether one of the spouses has committed adultery or done something else bad, but their primary focus is not on whether somebody just did something bad, but rather what effect itís had on the children. And courts will also look at what the child seems to prefer.

The key principle, though, is that none of these factors alone is enough to make the difference -- not even what the child prefers. Instead, the court will look at all the factors and weigh them to decide whatís in the overall best interest of the child. Click here for the list of factors.

Alabama has a statute on joint custody. Here's the gist of it:

  • Joint custody is preferred.
  • Joint custody means both joint legal custody and joint physical custody.
  • Joint legal custody means some kind of sharing of decision-making authority.
  • Joint physical custody means meaningful contact with both parents but does not necessarily mean equal time parenting.
  • Regardless of the custody arrangement, unless there's a court order to the contrary, both parents have full access to all information (academic, athletic, law enforcement, etc.) about the child.
  • The statute doesn't change (and is not grounds for changing) decrees that were already entered.

How Child Support Works

Alabama uses guidelines to figure child support. Basically, the state looks at how much money each parent makes as a percentage of the total. Then you look up that total income figure and the number of young children you have in a big table to get a basic child support figure. With a couple of extra calculations for the cost of health insurance and child care, that figure from the table becomes the total child support amount. The parent who doesnít have the children -- who doesnít have custody -- will pay their share of that total amount based on the percentage of the total income they contribute.

If youíd like to know what the child support guidelines would call for in your particular situation, there's a helpful interactive child support calculator here on Divorceinfo.com.

I've included here on DivorceInfo all the forms, tables, and instructions you need to figure your own child support in Alabama:

The guidelines take a lot of the guesswork out of child support, but there are some limitations to them. For instance, they donít address a total income below $6,600 or above $240,000 per year. They also assume the so-called "standard visitation" pattern -- thatís every other weekend, every other Thanksgiving, a week around Christmas, and up to a month in the summer.

If you end up with a parenting schedule thatís substantially different from standard visitation, or if your income falls outside the range, the judge would come up with a figure in his or her discretion. In the majority of cases, though, child support is a simple mathematical calculation that most anybody can do.

How Alimony Works

The idea of alimony is to help the spouse with lower earning power stay as close as practicable to the standard of living the couple enjoyed when they were married. The award of alimony is much more in the discretion of the judge than child support, depending on factors like what standard of living the couple enjoyed while they were married, what each of them is able to earn, and how long they were married. A judge may also take into account something bad that one of the parties has done -- like adultery or violence.

In general, you donít often see alimony after a short-term marriage. Itís usually reserved for those situations where one spouse has been economically dependent on the other spouse for most of a lengthy marriage. And judges will often limit the alimony to a term of years -- theyíll call it rehabilitative alimony. Thatís designed to give the spouse enough time to go back to school and prepare for a new career or brush up on qualifications to return to a career from earlier in life.

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