That is one of the two hardest questions for a divorce lawyer to answer. The other one is, “How much alimony will I have to pay?” The real answer is “I don’t know.” But no lawyer wants to say that to a client.

The reason we don’t know is that alimony is left up to the discretion of the judge, based on several factors (like age, health, income, length of the marriage, etc.) set forth by the legislature. The Court of Appeals, in Whittington v. Whittington, (CSA No. 06-32, January 4, 2007), has said that we don’t use a statistical approach to determine alimony.

The results vary widely from case of case. They bewilder anyone who has tried to plot alimony against incomes and marriage duration. There seems to be little rhyme or reason. By way of example, I was in a class recently with other attorneys, where we were given hypothetical facts and asked to write out an alimony award. There were 34 attorneys in that class and 34 different alimony awards.

Comes now the Kaufman Alimony Guidelines Calculator, a free web based computer program from the Women’s Law Center’s Bruce A. Kaufman Center for Family Law. The program asks for age, education level, number of children and health expenses. The program then uses a formula (developed by a lawyer in Michigan from “thousands of cases”) to recommend an amount and duration for alimony.

It is important to note that these guidelines are not binding on the court, and if a court relied on them alone, it would be reversible error. But at least one judge says he uses the guidelines as a starting point for analyzing cases. Certainly they will be used by attorneys in settlement negotiations. Most importantly, lawyers will now be able to give at least a preliminary answer to those “how much” alimony questions.

Thanks to Caryn Tamber at the Daily Record who brought this to my attention.