The new tax reform laws known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) will no longer allow alimony to be deductible by the payer and won’t be considered income to the recipient.
Welcome to 2019 and a delayed provision of the tax reform, also known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). For divorce agreements entered into after December 31, 2018, or pre-existing agreements that are modified after that date to expressly provide that alimony received is not included in the recipient’s income, alimony will no longer be deductible by the payer and won’t be income to the recipient.
This is in stark contrast to the treatment of alimony payments under decrees entered into and finalized before the end of 2018, for which alimony will continue to be deductible by the payer and income to the recipient.
Having the alimony treated one way for one segment of the population and the exact opposite for another group of individuals seems unfair and may ultimately make its way into the court system. But in the meantime, parties to a divorce action need to be aware of the change and compensate for it in their divorce negotiations, for a decree entered into after 2018.
This is not the first time Congress has tinkered with alimony. Way back in the mid-1980s, the definition of alimony was altered to prevent property settlements and child support from being deducted as alimony. Under the definition of alimony since then, payments:
(1) Must be in cash, paid to the spouse, the ex-spouse, or a third party on behalf of a spouse or ex-spouse, and the payments must be made after the divorce decree. If made under a separation agreement, the payment must be made after execution of that agreement.
(2) Must be required by a decree or instrument incident to divorce, a written separation agreement, or a support decree that does not designate payments as non-deductible by the payer or excludable by the payee. Voluntary payments to an ex-spouse do not count as alimony payments.
(3) Cannot be designated as child support. Child support is not alimony.
(4) Are valid alimony only if the taxpayers live apart after the decree. Spouses who share the same household can’t qualify for alimony deductions. This is true even if the spouses live separately within a dwelling unit.
(5) Must end on the death of the payee (recipient) spouse. If the divorce decree is silent, courts will generally consider state law, and where state law is vague, judges may make their own decision based on the facts and circumstances of the case.
(6) Cannot be contingent on the status of a child. That is, any amount that is discontinued when a child reaches 18, moves away, etc., is not alimony.
Taxable alimony payments under pre-2019 decrees and agreements are treated as earned income for IRA contribution purposes, allowing the spouse receiving the alimony to make IRA contributions based upon the alimony. The ability to make IRA contributions under pre-2019 decrees and agreements remains unchanged. However, for alimony received as a result of a post-2018 decree or agreement, the alimony can no longer be used as a basis for making an IRA contribution.
Pre-2019 Decrees – For decrees entered into before 2019 and unmodified after 2018:
Alimony continues to be deductible by the payer spouse/ex-spouse.
Alimony is includable in the income of the recipient spouse/ex-spouse.
The recipient spouse/ex-spouse can make IRA contributions based upon the alimony received.
Post-2018 Decrees– For decrees entered into after 2018 (and pre-2019 decrees that are modified and include the TCJA alimony rules): Alimony is not deductible by the payer-spouse/ex-spouse.
Alimony is not includable in the income of the recipient spouse/ex-spouse.
The recipient spouse/ex-spouse cannot make IRA contributions based upon the alimony received.
One additional complication is if state tax treatment is different than that at the federal level. Some states, such as California, have not conformed to the TCJA; as a result, the state treatment of alimony paid under both pre-2019 and post-2018 decrees in these states will continue to follow pre-2019 law, with alimony payments continuing to be deductible and alimony received being taxable.
If you have questions related to alimony or about how your state will tax alimony beginning in 2019, please give me a call.
John Ellis is the recipient of the “Top Practitioner” award from the ASTPS and received letters of commendation from the SEC and the State of Ohio. Instances of my professional successes have been in articles in local newspapers in California and Ohio as well as the Wall Street Journal and Accounting Today. He is the president of The John Ellis Company, a boutique CPA/Consultancy firm providing a wide range of consulting, accounting and tax services to domestic and foreign small to mid-size companies. He has offices in Long Beach, Los Angeles and Hong Kong.