California Law: Spousal Support

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Spousal support in California is gender neutral. The laws allow a lesser-earning spouse to receive support during the pendency of the divorce action. They also provide for support after the divorce decree is entered to give the lesser-earning spouse a chance to become self-sufficient.

Spousal support in California is, simply, an updated version of longstanding alimony laws. Like alimony, it is awarded in a divorce when one spouse earns significantly more than the other and usually involves monthly support payments. If you live in California and are getting a divorce – or even just thinking about it – you need to learn the basics of this type of obligation.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

In a divorce case, the issue of spousal support can become very complicated and highly contested, so be sure to hire a reputable and qualified family law attorney. The State Bar of California has a guide that details how to find the right lawyer for you.

Spousal Support in California

Laws about marriage and divorce change as society changes, and California is known for being in front of the crowd. The old version of alimony where the wife received a stipend for the rest of her life, especially if the husband left her for another partner, was premised on a culture where few women were breadwinners, self-supporting or even worked outside the home.

Today, things have changed considerably in our culture. These days, women have far more career opportunities than in yesteryear. Instead of staying home to take care of the kids, many get outside work and help support their family, perhaps holding jobs in high-paying fields like law, engineering, tech and medicine. In addition, laws have changed to allow legal partnerships and marriage for same-sex couples. All of these changes have necessitated changes in the alimony laws.

Today, California's Family Code refers to alimony as spousal or partner support. It is completely gender-neutral, payable by a higher-earning spouse to a lower-earning spouse and is also available to people in same-sex domestic partnerships or marriage. The goal of spousal support in California today is not to punish the bad behavior of one spouse, but to provide the lower-earning spouse with financial support for the time it will take to become self-sufficient.

Who Gets Spousal Support and When?

California's policy goal with spousal support is for both divorcing spouses to become self-supporting within a reasonable amount of time. This is reflected in the Family Code spousal support provisions. An award of spousal support is meant to cover expenses for supported spouses while they get the education or training needed to become self-sufficient.

Spousal support is awarded only where there is a significant difference between the incomes of the spouses. "Significant" here depends on the circumstances. A difference of $20,000 a year is significant in some cases, such as where one spouse earns $15,000 a year and the other $35,000, but not in others – one spouse earns $140,000 a year, the other $120,000.

A spouse can file a petition in the divorce court at the beginning of the dissolution process asking for temporary support. If one spouse earns significantly less than the other, the court will award temporary spousal support that will usually last for the duration of the divorce proceedings. At the end of the divorce, the court will consider permanent alimony, more accurately called post-divorce support. These two types of spousal support are calculated in very different ways.

Calculating Temporary Spousal Support

If you are wondering if there is some type of calculator formula a California court uses to determine temporary spousal support, the answer is yes. Each county selects the formula its courts will use, so not all are the same. But the spousal support calculator formula is often the same program used by the court to calculate child support, and the two types of support impact each other.

For example, several superior courts in California have adopted a spousal support guideline formula – known as the Santa Clara guideline – to use when calculating temporary spousal support. The formula presumes that a fair amount of temporary spousal support will be 40 percent of the paying spouse’s net monthly income, reduced by 50 percent of the receiving spouse’s net monthly income. This is calculated after child support.

For example, if Spouse A earns $10,000 a month and Spouse B earns $5,000 a month, the support would be calculated as follows: 40 percent of $10,000 = $4,000, minus 50 percent of $5,000, which is $2,500, equals $1,500 a month in temporary spousal support. If Spouse A is ordered to pay $1,000 a month in child support, the amount of spousal support decreases to $1,100 a month.

Post-Divorce Support in California: An Overview

The temporary support lasts from the date the temporary support was ordered or, in some cases, from the date the request for support was filed, to the date the divorce decree is entered. Since divorces can be stressful, these months can seem endless. But the period of post-divorce support can be far longer.

That may be why the court is obligated to take much more into account when it determines post-divorce spousal support. The court cannot simply use the temporary support as the basis for a longer term order, nor can it use the same formula.

Rather, the California Family Code sets out separate factors a court must consider as it weighs whether to grant post-divorce spousal support. These control both the appropriate amount of support and how long support payments should last.

Family Code Section 4320

The California statute that controls an award of spousal support after divorce is Family Code section 4320. That statute requires the court to consider all of the circumstances listed, which include:

  1. Whether the earning capacity of each party is enough to maintain the standard of living the couple enjoyed during themarriage, taking into account: marketable skills of the supported spouse; job market for those skills; and time and costs for the supported party toget appropriate education to develop or acquire marketable skills.
  2. Whether the supported party devoted time to taking care of the home during the marriage and, if so, if this is part of the reason for that person's lower earning capacity.
  3. Whether the supported party helped the supporting spouse get an education.
  4. Whether the supporting party can afford to pay spousal support, taking into account the supporting party’s earning capacity; earned and unearned income; assets; and standard of living.
  5. What each party needs to maintain the marital standard of living.
  6. Obligations and assets, including the separate property, of each party.
  7. Length of the marriage.
  8. Role of the supported party in caring for the couple's dependent children.
  9. Age and health of each party.
  10. Evidence of domestic violence.
  11. Tax consequences of spousal support to each party.
  12. Time it would take the supported party to become self-supporting – presumed to be half the length of the marriage if the marriage lasted less than 10 years.

The court can also consider any other circumstances it feels relevant to determining an award of spousal support. Only after considering all of these factors can the court make a spousal support award.

Duration of Spousal Support

California law distinguishes between longer marriages (those that lasted 10 years or more) and shorter marriages (lasting under 10 years). In both cases, the court must determine how long it will take for the lesser-earning spouse to become self-sufficient. But the ground rules are slightly different.

First, for shorter-term marriages, the law sets out a presumption that a reasonable time for the supported spouse to become self-sufficient is one-half the length of the marriage. That means that post-divorce support in a six-year marriage is presumed to be required for three years. The court doesn't have to use this figure if evidence suggests otherwise.

Second, the court sets an ending date for spousal support in shorter marriages and puts this into the divorce decree. However, it does not do this for long-term marriages that lasted over 10 years. In longer term marriages, the award is usually open-ended, but the supported spouse has to make efforts toward self-sufficiency. Either party can come back to court and ask for a change in the spousal support or an end to it if the supported spouse has become self-sufficient or isn't making a genuine effort to become self-sufficient.

References

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.