At the outset, alimony might appear to be the gift that keeps on giving. A consistent influx of funds sounds pretty good, right? But if you think of alimony as free money or the “great equalizer” of earning power, you don’t have it quite right.

But you’re not entirely wrong, either.

The truth is, no other area of domestic law is more open to interpretation than alimony. Let’s imagine one alimony case is heard by four judges in four counties. It’s very likely that those four judges would make four different alimony awards.

That kind of uncertainty can be daunting for anyone considering the pursuit of alimony.

Before you get too overwhelmed, slow down, and seek the advice of an attorney who can first help you decide if alimony is right for you.

Since alimony awards can vary wildly, and because district court judges have latitude in spousal support claim rulings, it’s advantageous to select a lawyer with prior experience in their courtrooms. An attorney already familiar with the judge or judges who might take the bench in your case can provide invaluable insights and firsthand knowledge.

Alimony isn’t your only option, particularly if you’re doubtful your former spouse could hit the dollar amount you are requesting. In instances like this, it might make more sense to seek a bigger piece of the estate you shared and helped to amass.

Or perhaps waiting on a monthly check stroked by your ex simply doesn’t sit well with you.

It’s important to note that alimony is taxable to the person who receives the support, unlike child support, which cannot be taxed to either party. And alimony is a tax deduction for the person paying it.

Alimony is also subject to change under certain circumstances, so it may not provide the long-term financial peace of mind you’re seeking. A judge can modify spousal support if there has been a substantial change in circumstances, and that modification typically benefits the payor.

An ex-spouse who is unexpectedly laid off or can no longer work due to an injury or illness – or who just wants to retire at a reasonable age – might be granted a reduction in, or end to, support obligations. A prudent lawyer will keep in mind the question – “How long, really, can we expect this person to pay?” – when giving advice or providing counsel.

It’s an important question, since judges across the country seem increasingly comfortable with modifying down an alimony award after the paying spouse retires, provided the retirement is not in bad faith.

To avoid monthly payments – and the risk of them changing or ending altogether – your attorney could instead bargain for a larger portion of the property distribution. Good lawyers can valuate your alimony award and present the payor with the “option” of giving the dependent spouse more cash, retirement savings or real estate, for example, in exchange for the waiver of the alimony claim.

Another route is a lump sum. It’s as simple as it sounds – the alimony, either determined through private agreement or court order is done as, you guessed it, one big payment. This approach really only applies when there are sufficient assets. The payor can take a look at his or her share of the estate and offer a dollar amount to drop the alimony claim. That’s a bit of an oversimplification. However, with an astute attorney by your side, alimony doesn’t have to be complicated.

Ryan Schultz, partner in the Lea/Schultz Law Firm, is a former corporate investigator now primarily practicing family law and business litigation. He is a member of the prestigious, invitation-only Family Law Council for the State Bar Association and the Alimony Committee for the N.C. Bar Association, as well as the New Hanover County Bar Association, N.C. State Bar Association and the Trial Lawyers of America. For more information or to schedule a consultation, visit www. theleaschultzlaw rm. com or call (910) 239-5990.