How to manage your divorce as new alimony tax rules go into effect

  • When the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1, you can say goodbye to old alimony tax rules that have been in place for years.
  • New rules mean alimony payments will no longer be tax-deductible for the payer and taxable income for the payee.
  • Even if you can't get your divorce in before current alimony tax rules expire, keeping in mind other financial considerations can help boost your bottom line.

When the clock strikes midnight on Jan. 1, it will be out with the old and in with the new.

And this year, that includes alimony tax rules, which have been in place for more than 70 years.

Current rules stipulate that alimony payments are tax-deductible for the payer and taxable income for the payee. Starting in 2019, that will no longer be the case.

But getting your divorce in under the Dec. 31 deadline is complicated.

That is because an alimony agreement has to be in a final settlement or court order, according to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Temporary agreements will not hold up.

For professionals working in this field, that makes for an especially busy time trying to get divorces through before the deadline.

"For any matrimonial attorney or any person in the financial field working in the area of divorce, from now until the end of the year is probably going to be the most stressful, busy time in their career," said Stacy Francis, certified financial planner and president and CEO of Francis Financial.

If you started your divorce proceedings toward the end of the year, you may have already been too late.

"For someone to have filed for divorce in November, they're not going to get a judgment this year," said Anne Cochran Freeman, partner at Sideman & Bancroft. "There are no rabbits to be pulled out of hats."

But new tax rules for alimony do not have to be bad news for your divorce.

"[It's] not the end of the world," said Megan Gorman, managing partner at Chequers Financial Management. "What it does is give us opportunities to do planning on other areas of your finances if you're getting divorced."

Divorce couple
Mike Kemp | Rubberball | Getty Images

Factor in other tax changes

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that was put in place this year included other changes that could affect your divorce, namely home ownership and how you claim your children.

Mortgage interest deductions are now capped at $750,000 — down from $1 million — if they were entered into after Dec. 15, 2017.

And deductions on state and local income taxes — or SALT — are now capped at $10,000.

"If you are getting divorced and thinking of keeping the house, you really need to see if you are going to get any tax benefits from it," Gorman said. "There will be people who are divorcing who … might not find it as compelling anymore."

If you choose to sell your home, you may be able to exclude up to $250,000 in capital gains if you're single and up to $500,000 if you're married and filing jointly. Those rules have not changed, Gorman noted.

The child tax credit has been raised to $2,000 per qualifying child — up from $1,000 — under new rules. That credit phases out for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples making more than $400,000.

"If you have three children under 17 and as a divorced spouse you're going to make $100,000, that's $6,000 of tax credits," Gorman said. "That's powerful."

Consider other payment methods

Instead of opting for traditional alimony, divorcing couples may want to consider other payment methods.

Now that tax laws are changing, couples may want to consider payments for property division instead of alimony, said Russ Thornton, a financial advisor at Wealthcare for Women.

For example, if a couple is worth $1 million, they could opt for one spouse to pay the other $500,000 in multiple payments over time.

Division of property is typically a non-taxable event, Thornton said. As of Jan. 1, there will not be tax differences between alimony payments or division of property payments.

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But there are some key differences between alimony and division of property.

For example, if your spouse files for bankruptcy, those division of property payments could go away, Thornton said. Alimony, on the other hand, is not dischargeable in bankruptcy.

Also, if your ex stops making payments, their wages can be garnished up to 25 percent with property division compared to up to 50 percent with alimony, according to Thornton.

Keep it civil

Couples can also choose to make a large one-time payment in lieu of alimony, according to Gorman.

The arrangement typically eliminates any tension that ongoing alimony payments can cause between a divorced couple.

And keeping your agreement drama-free can be the secret to saving money on your divorce.

"What we find with acrimonious divorces is that as both parties fight harder, the price tag increases for their divorce," Francis said. "It's not a surprise."

To avoid that, try to put your emotions aside and get a clear picture of what you will need to live on after your divorce, she said.

Also, consider looping in a neutral financial party, such as a certified divorce financial analyst, who can help you make confident decisions about your financial settlement.