California Alimony - Spousal Support

Spousal support has been more commonly known as alimony in the past, although both terms are regularly used these days. We’ll use both here. It refers to any court-ordered payments from one former spouse to the other. The spouse who pays the obligation is called the “payor” and the one receiving it is the “supported spouse” or “payee.”

If you are getting a divorce in California, the court may order alimony to be paid by one spouse to the other as part of the agreement. Since the dissolution of the marriage may result in unfair or uneven financial circumstances for the spouse that either does not earn enough income to support themselves (or no income at all), alimony awards can help that spouse continue to live in the style they are accustomed to. Understanding how spousal support works in California can help you know what to expect from the process and ensure that you are not surprised.

Spousal support is one of the most misunderstood issues in California divorce proceedings. While it was once just husbands that were obligated to pay spousal support to their wives after a divorce, spousal support has evolved significantly to adjust to changing social standards. Now either spouse may be entitled to support.  Besides just levels of income, various other factors, including disability, a lack of marketable skills, and serious health issues can entitle either spouse to continued support after divorce.

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When does Spousal Support Start in California?

Spousal Support can begin before the divorce is finalized in California. Temporary spousal support can be ordered by the court if there is a demonstrated financial need, and is covered under the California Family Code 4320. Alimony can also begin when the divorce is finalized, per the court order or even be awarded retroactively and back dated to actual date of filing or to the alimony request date. Retroactive support can be ordered by the court when it is appropriate.

Types of Spousal Support

Spousal Support comes in a variety of styles in California; the type of alimony paid will be determined as part of the divorce process and is specified in Family Code Section 4320. The forms of alimony available in California include:

  • Temporary Alimony, awarded after separation and filing of the Petition, but before finalization of the divorce
  • Permanent Alimony, awarded indefinitely or until the receiving spouse dies or remarries
  • Rehabilitative Alimony, awarded for a specific length of time and designed to give the payee spouse time to become self-supporting
  • Lump Sum Alimony, which provides a single large spousal support, often as part of a property settlement
  • Reimbursement Alimony, which pays one spouse back for covering the educational or training expenses of the other

How is Spousal Support Calculated in California?

There is not a “one size fits all” approach to alimony in the state of California, but there is an outline of what needs to be considered when alimony is calculated. Since an alimony award will have a significant impact on the financial health of both parties, it is essential to have an attorney protect your interests in court as spousal support is determined.

According to Family Code 4320, the following factors will be used to determine the actual amount awarded:

  • The income and earning capacity of each party and how that income relates to the standard of living enjoyed by both parties during the marriage.
  • The skills and marketability of the spouse receiving the alimony; do they have marketable skills that could be used to acquire a job? If not, can those skills be attained through education or training?
  • Did the spouse requesting alimony give up education or experience that would improve their earning capabilities to raise children or care for the home; did the now supported party support the paying spouse while he or she went to school, obtained a license or otherwise furthered their career?
  • Can the supporting spouse pay the support requested from their current and future potential income and assets?

All of these questions need to be answered and examined to determine an alimony award that is appropriate and fair for both parties.

Temporary vs. Permanent Support

Temporary support gets established early in divorce proceedings to provide payments until the entry of a final order. Once there is a final order, spousal support is considered permanent.

“Permanent” is actually a misnomer. Most spousal support arrangements do not last forever unless the supported spouse faces severely limiting circumstances. In most cases, spousal support is ordered on a limited basis to allow a spouse with the lower earning capacity to obtain training or education and pursue work that promotes self-sufficiency. The order indicates an end date and deadline for the supported spouse to get to this point.

Lifetime support is very rare. A combination of age and no marketable skills could result in a lifetime award. Disability is another circumstance that results in truly permanent support. However, it is possible to modify the order when there are life changes.

Modification or Termination of Spousal Support

Either party can request a modification or termination of support. Sometimes, people agree to it. Even under this desirable scenario, you still want an order filed with the court that lays out those terms. Otherwise, they will not be enforceable.

When the modification or termination is not agreed upon, the spouse requesting it must file a motion with the court and show a “material change of circumstances.” These circumstances must arise through no fault of the spouse making the request. For example, an involuntary job loss could make it impossible to pay support and a party can file to terminate support based on that development. Also, a supported spouse can develop a serious health condition or disability that makes living without continued support impossible.

If you are looking to modify or terminate support, your reasons must arise from something involuntary. Taking a lower-paid position or failing to finish training needed for self-sufficiency are not reasons to modify or terminate support. It is more likely the court will consider those situations within your control and not make any changes to a spousal support order.

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How is Spousal Support Awarded?

Eligibility for alimony in California is determined by a variety of factors, including:

  • The length of the marriage
  • Standard of living during the marriage or domestic partnership
  • The ability to maintain that standard of living
  • Child care obligations
  • Age and health of both parties
  • Debt and property distribution
  • Any efforts by one spouse to help the other secure education, vocational training, career growth or a professional license
  • Presence of domestic violence
  • Career impacts faced while providing care for children and home
  • Tax impacts of spousal support
  • Financial health and outlook for both parties
  • The ability of the working or higher earning spouse to support themselves after paying alimony

The standard of living consideration dominates spousal support discussions. California law will not allow one spouse to live in abject poverty if the other enjoys a standard of living equal or better than the one maintained during the marriage. When looking at this factor, a judge will look at the marketable skills of both parties, any education or training needed to update or gain skills, and whether earning ability was impaired by domestic duties during the marriage. This frequently comes up in cases of a 30-year marriage where one spouse was the primary homeworker. Being out of the workforce for that amount of time often makes it difficult, if not impossible, to update skills and find suitable work.

Shorter marriages where one spouse has at least some level of post-high school education result in less extensive support awards. Many times, all a spouse requires is time to update skills and find work. Spousal support awards are often designed to facilitate that, and are tailored to the time required.

Domestic violence also affects the amount and duration of support. Spouses facing abuse charges will not receive support. If a victim of domestic violence is requesting support from the abusive spouse, courts consider that thoroughly since emotional and physical damage often take a toll on earning ability.

The diversity of situations prevents set guidelines in determining spousal support. It is handled on a case-by-case basis as each couple is unique and some situations are more financially dire than others. Also, unlike child support, it is not required by law and nonpayment will result in civil but not criminal penalties.

Spousal Support Enforcement

Some spouses may fail to live up to expectations or fail to follow the court-ordered spousal support ruling. In California, alimony may be enforced by a court proceeding. Unlike child support, which allows for the garnishment of wages or the placement of a lien for enforcement, alimony enforcement will require active involvement of the court system and may require additional expenditures by the receiving spouse.

California divorce attorney can help you learn more about spousal support and how it applies in your case. Whether you anticipate being the payer or the recipient, a divorce lawyer can help walk you through the process and ensure that you are treated fairly by your former spouse. Contact us if you are considering divorce and want to learn more about your options; we’re here to support you during this troubling time.

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