Alimony & Spousal Support in California

California Spousal Support Explained

When a couple legally separates or divorces, the court may order one spouse or domestic partner to pay the other a certain amount of support money each month. This is called “spousal support” for married couples and “partner support” in domestic partnerships. It is sometimes also called “alimony.”

For spousal or partner support to be legally established and officially start, there must be a court case. A spouse or domestic partner can ask the judge to make a spousal or partner support order as part of 1 of these types of cases:

You can ask for spousal or partner support to be paid while your case is going on. This is called a “temporary spousal support order” or a “temporary partner support order.” Support can also be ordered once the divorce or legal separation becomes final, as part of the final divorce or separation judgment. When it is ordered once the case becomes final, it is called “permanent (or long-term) spousal or partner support.”

Different types of Alimony (Spousal Support)

Like many other states, California courts offer temporary, rehabilitative, and permanent spousal support. California also recognizes a unique form of spousal support called “reimbursement support.” A supported spouse may request temporary spousal support. If a judge awards temporary support, it will typically be granted from the date it’s requested until the time the judge finalizes the divorce.

In California, there are several types of spousal support, each designed to address different needs and circumstances arising from the dissolution of marriage.

Type of Spousal Support Purpose Duration Modifiable
Temporary Spousal Support Support during divorce proceedings Until final divorce decree Yes, until final decree
Lump Sum Alimony One-time payment instead of ongoing support One-time payment No, as it’s a one-time payment
Periodic Alimony Regular payments for a specified period Specified period or until certain conditions are met Yes, based on significant changes in circumstances
Rehabilitative Alimony Support for education/training for self-sufficiency Until education/training is completed Yes, at review dates or upon significant changes
Permanent Alimony Ongoing support without specified end date Until death or remarriage of recipient Yes, based on significant changes in circumstances

Here’s an expanded look at each type:

Temporary Spousal Support

The purpose of temporary support is to allow a lower-earning spouse to cover living expenses during the divorce process. This type of support is unique in that the courts usually calculate the amount of support by using the California child support guidelines instead of the spousal support factors listed below.

  • Purpose: Temporary spousal support is awarded during the divorce proceedings. Its main aim is to maintain the living standard of the lower-earning spouse until a final order is made.
  • Calculation: The amount is often determined by a formula that varies by county in California. This formula takes into account the income of both parties and certain expenses.
  • Duration: This support lasts until the final divorce decree is issued, at which point it may be replaced by permanent or rehabilitative alimony, depending on the court’s final judgment.

Lump Sum Alimony

  • Purpose: Instead of receiving ongoing payments, a spouse may receive one large payment of alimony. This can simplify financial ties between the ex-spouses.
  • Benefits: It provides a clean break and financial certainty. The recipient can use these funds as they see fit, whether for investment, purchasing a home, or other personal needs.
  • Tax Implications: It’s important to understand the tax implications of lump sum alimony, as it may significantly affect both parties’ financial situations.

Periodic Alimony

  • Nature: Periodic alimony involves payments made at regular intervals, usually monthly, for a specified period or until a certain condition is met (e.g., the recipient remarries).
  • Determining Factors: The court considers the length of the marriage, the standard of living during the marriage, the age and health of each spouse, and the earning capacity of the lower-earning spouse.
  • Modification: Unless otherwise agreed upon, periodic alimony can be modified based on a significant change in circumstances.

Rehabilitative Alimony

Rehabilitative support is the most common type of spousal support and is common in cases where one spouse earns more than the other or was the primary earner in the family while the other cared for the parties’ children and home during the marriage. The goal of rehabilitative support is to give the lower-earning spouse enough support to allow time to gain valuable job skills or education to enter the workforce and become self-supporting.

  • Purpose: This type of support is intended to allow a spouse to obtain the education, training, or job experience necessary to become self-sufficient.
  • Duration: Rehabilitative alimony is typically granted for a finite period, often tied to the time estimated for the recipient to complete their education or training programs.
  • Review: The court may set review dates to assess the recipient’s progress toward self-sufficiency and adjust the support accordingly.

Permanent Alimony in California

Permanent spousal support is rare, and the court typically reserves it for spouses ending a long-term marriage (meaning ten or more years) where one spouse can’t enter the workforce due to advanced age or illness. (CA FAM §4336.)

  • Criteria: Permanent alimony may be awarded after long marriages, usually over ten years, where one spouse cannot become self-sufficient due to age, health conditions, or lack of marketable skills.
  • Termination: It continues until the death of either spouse or the remarriage of the recipient. It may also terminate if the court finds that the recipient is cohabitating with a non-marital partner.
  • Adjustments: Though termed “permanent,” the amount can be modified if there’s a significant change in circumstances.

California is unique in that if one spouse helped finance the other’s education or career advancement training during the marriage, that spouse could request reimbursement support to recoup the funds used during the marriage. The idea behind reimbursement support is that when spouses work together to allow one to get an advanced degree, both will benefit from the advancements during the marriage. When couples divorce, only the spouse with the degree will benefit, and the court understands that may not be fair to the other.

The amount and duration of spousal support paid in California is determined by state law after carefully reviewing numerous factors. The court has tremendous discretion in setting alimony. If you are unable to settle or resolve this issue, then your attorney needs to develop detailed evidence about each factor set forth below.

The controlling statute that the court must consider in establishing permanent spousal support states the following:

FAM § 4320. In ordering spousal support under this part, the court shall consider all of the following circumstances:

(a) The extent to which the earning capacity of each party is sufficient to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage, taking into account all of the following:

(1) The marketable skills of the supported party; the job market for those skills; the time and expenses required for the supported party 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.

(2) The extent to which the supported party’s present or future earning capacity is impaired by periods of unemployment that were incurred during the marriage to permit the supported party to devote time to domestic duties.

(b) The extent to which the supported party contributed to the attainment of an education, training, a career position, or a license by the supporting party.

(c) The ability of the supporting party to pay spousal support, taking into account the supporting party’s earning capacity, earned and unearned income, assets, and standard of living.

(d) The needs of each party based on the standard of living established during the marriage.

(e) The obligations and assets, including the separate property, of each party.

(f) The duration of the marriage.

(g) The ability of the supported party to engage in gainful employment without unduly interfering with the interests of dependent children in the custody of the party.

(h) The age and health of the parties

(i) Documented evidence of any history of domestic violence, as defined in Section 6211, between the parties, including, but not limited to, consideration of emotional distress resulting from domestic violence perpetrated against the supported party by the supporting party, and consideration of any history of violence against the supporting party by the supported party.

(j) The immediate and specific tax consequences to each party.

(k) The balance of the hardships to each party.

(l) The goal that the supported party shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time. Except in the case of a marriage of long duration as described in Section 4336, a “reasonable period of time” for purposes of this section generally shall be one-half the length of the marriage.

Factors in Determining Spousal Support

A judge must consider what each spouse or partner can earn to keep a standard of living close to what they each had during the marriage or partnership.

To do this, the judge looks at the:

  • Marketable skills of the spouse or partner getting support;
  • The job market for those skills;
  • Time and expense the spouse or partner who gets support will need to get the education or training to develop more marketable skills or to get a job;
  • The extent that the earning capacity (the ability to earn income) of the spouse or partner who gets support was impaired by periods of unemployment during the marriage/partnership when he or she was devoted to domestic duties.

The judge will also consider any history of violence at the hands of the spouse or partner to be supported against the person who would pay the support. There is a rebuttable presumption against giving spousal or partner support to an abusive spouse or partner who has a criminal conviction for domestic violence against the other spouse or partner.

How To Terminate California Spousal Support from Long-Term Marriage

Terminating spousal support in the context of a long-term marriage in California, generally defined as a marriage lasting 10 years or more, involves specific considerations. Here’s a guide on how to approach this process:

Understanding the Basis for Termination

  1. Automatic Termination Conditions: Spousal support typically ends automatically if the recipient remarries or if either party dies. It’s important to check the original spousal support order for any specific termination conditions outlined in your case.
  2. Cohabitation of the Recipient: Support may be reduced or terminated if the recipient cohabitates with a non-marital partner. The payer must prove cohabitation and financial support between the recipient and their new partner.
  3. Retirement of the Payer: Retirement is not an automatic ground for termination but can be a basis for modification or termination of support, especially if the retirement is reasonable and in good faith.

Legal Steps to Terminate or Modify Support

  1. Review Your Spousal Support Order: Understand the terms of your order, as it may include specific provisions for modification or termination based on retirement, cohabitation, or other factors.
  2. Gather Evidence: Collect evidence of any changes in circumstances that justify the termination or modification of spousal support. This could include proof of the recipient’s remarriage, cohabitation, significant changes in either party’s financial situation, or the payer’s retirement.
  3. File a Motion: File a motion to modify or terminate spousal support with the court that issued the original order. You will need to provide evidence supporting your request and explain how circumstances have changed since the original order was made.
  4. Serve the Motion: Legally serve the motion on your ex-spouse, giving them an opportunity to respond.
  5. Attend the Hearing: Both parties will have the opportunity to present their case at a court hearing. Be prepared to present your evidence and argue why spousal support should be terminated or modified.

Considerations for Long-Term Marriages

  • Duration of Support: For long-term marriages, the court does not automatically set an end date for spousal support as it might for shorter marriages. The support’s duration is often left to the court’s discretion.
  • Change in Circumstances: The court will look for a “significant change in circumstances” since the last order to consider modifying or terminating support. This could include changes in income, employment, health, or living situation.
  • Negotiating Settlements: If possible, negotiating a settlement with your ex-spouse outside of court can be a more amicable and cost-effective approach. Consider mediation to reach an agreement.

Legal Advice and Mediation

  • Consult with an Attorney: Spousal support laws in California are complex, especially for long-term marriages. Consulting with a family law attorney can provide you with guidance tailored to your specific situation.
  • Mediation: Before going to court, consider mediation. A neutral third party can help both spouses come to an agreement on the termination or modification of spousal support.

Terminating spousal support in the context of a long-term marriage in California requires a careful approach, taking into consideration both legal requirements and the specifics of your situation. Being well-prepared and seeking professional advice can help navigate this process more smoothly.

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