Alimony vs. Child Support: What's the Difference?

Single mother packing her small son for school.

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Getting divorced often means disentangling numerous financial issues, such as the ownership of the marital home and the responsibility for paying off debts incurred during the marriage. One of the biggest questions may center on whether one spouse will be entitled to alimony and/or child support. If you're receiving support—or potentially paying it—it's important to understand the differences between alimony and child support and why those differences matter.

Key Takeaways

  • Alimony and child support are two kinds of payments that need to be finalized during a divorce
  • The biggest difference between the two is that alimony goes towards expenses of your estranged spouse, while child support goes towards meeting expenses of your child
  • Alimony is taxable income for recipient and tax deductible for the payer only divorces finalized prior to Dec. 21, 2018. Child support is neither taxable income nor tax deductible.
  • How much needs to be paid in alimony or child support is determined by courts based on state laws.

Alimony vs. Child Support

The key difference between alimony and child support is the intended use of each payment. Alimony is paid for the benefit of a spouse. Child support is paid to meet the basics needs of the child, such as food, clothing, medical care, housing, and other necessities.

  Alimony Child Support
Who Benefits? Estranged spouse Payments go towards meeting expenses of children
Taxable Income? Yes, for divorces finalized before Dec. 31, 2018. No, for divorces finalized after Dec. 31, 2018. No
Tax Deductible? Yes, for divorces finalized before Dec. 31, 2018. No, for divorces finalized after Dec. 31, 2018. No
Who Pays? Any spouse can ask for alimony. Who pays alimony and how much depends on several factors, including income, and expenses, set by the state law. Typically, the noncustodial parent has to pay child support to the custodial parent.

Who Benefits From Alimony and Child Support?

Alimony, also sometimes known as "spousal support," is an amount paid from one spouse to another following a divorce. A judge may order alimony payments for a specified period of time or until the spouse receiving support remarries.

Alimony is generally intended to help the spouse receiving it maintain a similar lifestyle to the one they were accustomed to during the marriage. It is not granted automatically—the spouse needing the alimony has to ask for it.

Child support payments are made towards meeting basic expenses of your child that may include food, shelter, clothing, medical expenses and other general costs.

Tax Treatment of Alimony and Child Support

How you treat alimony for tax purposes depends on whether you pay it or receive it and when your divorce was finalized. If your divorce agreement was finalized prior to December 31, 2018, and you make alimony payments to your ex-spouse, those amounts are tax-deductible. That means you can deduct the alimony you've paid from your taxable income for the year, yielding a tax break.

On the other hand, if you're receiving alimony payments, you must claim them as taxable income on your return. Again, this only applies if your divorce agreement was finalized before December 31, 2018.


The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated the deduction for alimony payments and the requirement to claim alimony as taxable income for divorces finalized after December 31, 2018.

Because child support is intended to benefit the children, it's not considered taxable income for the person who receives it. Child support payment is also not deductible for the parent who provides it.

IRS Rules Regarding Alimony and Child Support

The IRS has several requirements when it comes for both alimony and child support payments. In case of alimony, those rules are about how to deduct or report alimony income. In the case of child support, IRS rules define who the custodial parent is and who can claim the child as a dependent. That's important, because in most cases, the non-custodial parent is expected to pay child support.

Rules For Alimony

The IRS has several requirements that must be met for spousal support payments to be considered alimony and therefore, deductible for divorce agreements finalized before December 31, 2018.

To qualify as alimony, ex-spouses must meet these criteria:

  • They cannot file a joint tax return.
  • Payments must be made in cash or by check or money order.
  • Payments must be owed under a divorce or separation agreement.
  • The divorce or separation agreement doesn't categorize the payments as not being alimony.
  • Spouses must not live in the same household when payments are made.
  • There's no liability to continue the payments if the receiving spouse dies.
  • Payments aren't treated as child support or a property settlement.

If you're eligible to deduct alimony payments you made, you can do that on your Form 1040, using Schedule 1. You'll need to enter your former spouse's Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number on the form. Otherwise, the IRS may disallow the deduction.

If you're receiving alimony, and it's considered taxable income, you'd also report that on Form 1040, Schedule 1. You also will need to include your former spouse's Social Security number or taxpayer identification number.

Rules For Child Support

As child support is neither tax-deductible nor taxable income, there are no reporting requirements for making or receiving payments. Parents do, however, need to take care when claiming children as dependents on their taxes.


Generally, the parent whom the child lives with for the greater part of the year is the custodial parent for tax purposes. This parent can claim the child as a dependent, assuming the rules for claiming dependents are met.

The non-custodial parent can, however, claim the child as a dependent if a separation agreement or divorce decree specifies that they can. In that case, custodial parent would have to sign Form 8332 authorizing the release of their right to claim the child as a dependent.

What Determines Alimony and Child Support Payments?

There are no one-size-fits all determination for either alimony or child support payments. Both are governed by factors that state laws take into consideration.

Factors Determining Alimony Payments

For alimony, the courts can use a number of factors to shape payment amounts, including:

  • Each spouse's income and employment situation
  • Their individual living expenses
  • How assets were divided in the divorce
  • The length of the marriage
  • Each spouse's age

Alimony can be modified after the divorce in certain situations. For example, if the paying spouse loses their job, they can ask the court to reduce the payment amount. Likewise, if the spouse receiving alimony sees their cost of living increase, they can ask the court to order a higher support payment.

Factors Determining Child Support Payments?

Whether child support is court-ordered, and in what amount, largely depends on the finalized custody agreement and state law. For example, some states might not order support if both parents earn similar incomes and share custody equally, and some states may base support on the number of children in the household and the non-custodial parent's income.

How long child support payments last also largely depends upon state law and each parent's financial situation. For example, child support may be ordered until the child turns 18, or the paying parent may be required to continue providing financial support beyond that date in the form of college tuition assistance.

The Bottomline: Talk to an Attorney

If you're in doubt about the differences between alimony and child support, and your obligations regarding either one, a divorce attorney can be an invaluable source of information. Even if you have yet to initiate divorce proceedings, they can advise you on the best course of action to take with requesting or paying spousal or child support.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much tax do I pay on alimony received?

If your divorce was finalized after Dec. 31, 2018, alimony payments you receive are not considered taxable income and therefore you do not have to pay any taxes on them.

Why is child support not tax deductible?

Child support payments are made to meet basic expenses of your child after a divorce. They are neither tax deductible for the payer nor considered taxable income for the parent receiving child support. Think of it like this— if you took your child to buy new shoes, you cannot claim it as a tax deduction. Child support works in a similar way.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Family Court of The State of Delaware. "Spousal Support."

  2. "Find Help with Collecting Child Support."

  3. IRS. "Topic No. 452 Alimony and Separate Maintenance,"

  4. IRS. "Alimony, Child Support, Court Awards, Damages 1,"

  5. Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, Child Support Services Division. "Non-Custodial Parents."

  6. IRS. "Dependents 6,"

  7. New York City Family Court. "Child And/Or Spousal Support."

  8. NYC Law Department Family Court Division. "Child Support."

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