California Spousal Support FAQs – Understanding Alimony in California
Love it or hate it, spousal support is alive and well in California. Understanding your rights or obligations regarding spousal support is necessary for any spouse thinking about divorce in California. Learning why support is ordered, how long it will be paid, and exactly how much support will be paid will help you be better prepared for what to expect.
What is Spousal Support?
Spousal support, also known as alimony, is payment from one spouse (“payor spouse”) to another (“supported spouse” or “payee spouse”). Spousal support is not a right, nor is it guaranteed. It is broken down into two types: temporary and permanent. These terms are legal terms and should not be confused with the common definitions of “temporary” and “permanent.”
Temporary support is spousal support that is ordered while a divorce is pending, or pre-judgment. Permanent spousal support is more accurately referred to as “post-divorce judgment” support. The term “permanent” alimony is somewhat of a misnomer. Very few, if any, support awards will continue permanently. In California, spouses can request temporary alimony, permanent alimony, or both.
The Purpose of California Spousal Support
Spousal support is not intended to punish a spouse for perceived misbehavior during the marriage or after separation, nor is it a reward or consolation prize for having tolerated perceived maltreatment during the marriage or after separation because California is a no-fault state.
It is the policy of the State of California that both parties become self-supporting within a reasonable amount of time. Spousal support is meant to bridge that gap between the time it takes for the supported spouse to obtain employment or resources that meet their cost of living needs.
Temporary spousal support is intended to maintain the living conditions and standards of both parties until the divorce is final and permanent support has been determined, along with the final division of assets and debts.
The purpose of permanent spousal support, however, is to provide the supported spouse with sufficient income to meet their basic needs and to ensure that their lifestyle will be able to remain consistent after the divorce.
How Long will Spousal Support Last? Can Spousal Support be for a Lifetime?
The law has thus progressed from a rule that entitled some women to lifelong alimony as a condition of the marital contract of support to one that entitles either spouse to postdissolution support for only so long as necessary to become self-supporting. (In re Marriage of Pendleton & Fireman (2000) 24 Cal.4th 39.)
The duration of California spousal support is left to the discretion of the court within certain general equitable principals and guidelines. Generally, the length of spousal support is based on a reasonable transition period from married life to single and self-sufficient life.
The duration of support also depends, in part, on the length of the marriage. For “short-term marriages” (less than 10 years), alimony lasts no longer than half the length of the marriage, with “marriage” defined as the time between the date of marriage and the date of separation.
For “long-term marriages” (over 10 years), there is no red-line rule determining how long the supported spouse will receive support. Generally, family court judges will consider various factors in order to place the supported spouse in a position as close as possible to the marital standard of living, until that spouse can reasonably become self-supporting. There is no automatic termination date and the court will not generally set alimony duration.
How Much Spousal Support Will be Ordered?
In California, the family courts have adopted a spousal support guideline for calculating temporary (pre-judgment) spousal support. The guideline states that the payor spouse should contribute presumptively 40% of his or her net monthly income, reduced by one-half of the supported spouse’s net monthly income. If child support is an issue, spousal support is calculated after child support is calculated.
Deciding permanent (post-judgment) support is a much more detailed process with many factors to be considered.
Family Code 4320 Factors Courts Consider in Ordering Spousal Support
Permanent spousal support provides financial assistance, if appropriate, as determined by the financial circumstances of the parties after their dissolution and the division of community property. When determining the final amount of spousal support, California family courts must consider the factors in Family Code 4320. These factors include:
- The extent to which the earning capacity of each spouse is sufficient to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage, taking into account all of the following:
- The marketable skills of the supported spouse; the job market for those skills; the time and expenses required for the supported spouse to acquire the appropriate education or training to develop those skills; and the possible need for retraining or education to acquire other, more marketable skills or employment.
- The extent to which the supported spouse’s present or future earning capacity is impaired by periods of unemployment that were incurred during the marriage to permit the supported spouse to devote time to domestic duties.
- The extent to which the supported spouse contributed to the attainment of an education, training, a career position, or a license by the supporting spouse.
- The ability of the supporting spouse to pay spousal support, taking into account the supporting spouse’s earning capacity, earned and unearned income, assets, and standard of living.
- The needs of each spouse based on the standard of living established during the marriage.
- The obligations and assets, including the separate property, of each spouse.
- The duration of the marriage.
- The ability of the supported spouse to engage in gainful employment without unduly interfering with the interests of dependent children in the custody of the spouse.
- The age and health of the spouses.
- Any documented evidence of any history of domestic violence, as defined in Section 6211, between the spouses, including, but not limited to, consideration of emotional distress resulting from domestic violence perpetrated against the supported spouse by the supporting spouse, and consideration of any history of violence against the supporting spouse by the supported spouse.
- The immediate and specific tax consequences to each spouse.
- The balance of the hardships to each spouse.
- The goal that the supported spouse shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time.
- The criminal conviction of an abusive spouse shall be considered in making a reduction or elimination of a spousal support award in accordance with Section 4325.
- Any other factors the court determines are just and equitable.
Because the circumstances of the parties in every dissolution action varies greatly, the court does not give equal weight to each of the statutory factors, and rather must arrive at a just and reasonable support order as determined by the court. The controlling factor in establishing the amount and duration of an award is the standard of living established during the marriage.
Enforcing and Collecting Spousal Support
Once a court orders a spouse to pay spousal support or alimony, he or she must comply with the court’s instructions. Failure to pay California spousal support is considered a violation of a family court order and can have serious legal consequences. If the court determines that a spouse is able to pay support but fails to do so, the court can hold the spouse in “contempt of court” and a warrant could be issued for his or her arrest. This is often used as a last resort, when all other enforcement tools have failed.
Contempt is generally not the best remedy under such circumstances, simply because it is intended to punish the non-compliance. It does nothing to enforce the order or collect the support amount.
If a spouse’s financial situation changes, he or she loses their job, or the spouse receiving the support no longer needs it, either party can ask the court to change the spousal support order. However, a support order does not disappear or change unless the terms of the order provides for such, or the court makes an order modifying the terms of the order.
Can I Modify or Terminate Alimony?
Either spouse may request that the duration and/or amount of alimony be modified as long as the original order (or marital settlement agreement) does not specify that the order is “non-modifiable.”
In California, spousal support is automatically terminated upon death or remarriage of the supported party. If there is no longer a need for support, or a significant change in the supporting party’s needs or ability to pay, proceedings to terminate or modify support are often commenced. The primary factor the court considers is changed circumstances. The court will evaluate the same factors it considers in making an initial order in determining whether the circumstances have changed in a manner that warrants a modification or termination of the order.
This occurs in some cases when the parties’ minor child reaches the age of majority and leaves the home, child support terminates, child custody is modified in some substantial way (by court order or agreement outside of court), one of the parties loses his or her job, etc.
There are two ways to modify California spousal support. First, the parties can agree to change the amount and/or duration of support. If this happens, you should enter into a written contract that spells out the new agreement, and ask the judge to turn the agreement into an official court order.
If there is no agreement to modify or terminate support, one of the spouses will need to file a request with the court and show a “material change of circumstances” from the time the original support order was made. The involuntary loss of a job, for example, may constitute a material change of circumstances. If the payor spouse’s income has decreased through no fault of his or her own, a judge may find that it’s appropriate to reduce support.
Finally, a California spousal support obligation will automatically terminate upon the death of the supported spouse. If the supported spouse dies before the spousal support obligation ends, the payor spouse no longer has to pay, and the supported spouse’s estate can’t enforce the alimony order to its own benefit.
California’s family law procedures are complex and trying to navigate them without help of a California family lawyer can be frustrating. If you have questions about divorce or California spousal support, contact our accomplished and dedicated family law, divorce, and child custody lawyers by calling (844) 4-TALKOV (825568) or contact us online for a free consultation with our experienced family law attorney, Colleen Sparks, who can guide you through the court process in a prompt and clear manner.
Our knowledgeable attorneys can also help if you have questions about any of the following:
- Child Custody and Visitation
- Restraining Orders
- Child Support
- Family Law Contempt