CALIFORNIA ALIMONY LAW
HELPING YOU UNDERSTAND SPOUSAL SUPPORT IN CALIFORNIA
As Los Angeles alimony attorneys, we are exposed to divorce cases daily. High-income power couples, low-income families with little to split, stay-at-home parents, and high-level business owners—we’ve seen how divorce affects them all. As a result, we’ve realized one thing: divorce is hard on everyone, no matter what. It is complicated—emotionally, financially, socially, and mentally. It is our job is to make the process as smooth and clear as possible.
To that end, we have spent some time preparing this post to give readers everything they need to know about the fundamentals of alimony: what it is, who pays it, how it is calculated, and how certain factors affect it. This information includes both the philosophy and the hard facts, including the formulas most California courts will use to calculate how much alimony a spouse will pay or receive.
HAVE QUESTIONS ABOUT PAYING OR RECEIVING ALIMONY IN CALIFORNIA? CONTACT OUR FIRM TODAY TO LEARN MORE.
WHAT IS ALIMONY IN CALIFORNIA?
Alimony, or spousal support, is this: money paid from one spouse to another to ensure divorce does not impoverish either of them. California family law orders spouses to pay alimony in order to “maintain the standard of living” for each party.
It is a protective measure – When one spouse makes significantly less money than the other, divorce could possibly cause him or her to be forced into difficult financial circumstances without the help of alimony.
Without alimony, spouses with less income or marketable skills would be forced to choose between severely lower standards of living or living in irretrievably broken marriages, or worse, be made hostage to the desires or whims of the higher-earning spouse.
Alimony is a way for the law to level the playing field between spouses and prevent unjust power dynamics based on money. It is calculated taking into account specific factors, some of which are hard to quantify. Some courts, like the Santa Clara Family Law Court, use hard formulas to determine how much alimony is owed by either party.
PERMANENT VS. TEMPORARY ALIMONY
In California, alimony is divided into two categories:
Don’t be intimidated by the word “permanent”—California courts rarely provide legitimately permanent support anymore, especially in cases where both parties are relatively young and healthy. Courts presume that supported spouses are making the attempt to become financially self-reliant. Alimony is intended to help spouses become self-sufficient after a divorce, which means spouses are obligated to attempt to reach financial independence at some point (usually within half the length of a short-term marriage).
However, in cases where the supported spouse is simply too ill or elderly to support themselves, the court may grant permanent alimony. Divorce attorneys would be able to argue for the necessity of permanent or long-term alimony, especially if the court decided to subject the supported spouse to a vocational evaluation from a court-appointed vocational counselor.
Temporary alimony is support paid during the divorce process. It is intended to “maintain the status quo” for both spouses while the divorce is being determined.
Permanent alimony is also known as a post-divorce settlement; it is the court-ordered support you pay until the date the order specifies (subject to court modification).
Permanent alimony is potentially ongoing. California courts retain jurisdiction (authority) to modify, terminate, or extend alimony payments based on the 15 factors listed in the next section. In marriages “of long duration,” (which commonly means “more than 10 years long”), their jurisdiction is indefinite unless the spouses agree to end spousal support together.
THE SANTA CLARA COURT FORMULA FOR SPOUSAL SUPPORT IN CA
While the above factors may seem like a great deal of variables, the court will usually determine temporary alimony owed to a spouse on a simple formula. For example, courts in California may depend on the Santa Clara formula to decide how much alimony a spouse must pay through the course of a divorce hearing. This formula will form the base payment, but it is subject to change by the courts. Your divorce attorney can argue to raise or lower the base payment by demonstrating that the calculation does not match your specific divorce situation.
50% of Paying Spouse’s Net Income – 40% of Supported Spouse’s Net Income = Temporary Alimony
For example, if Mike makes $150,000 a year net income, and Sally makes $75,000 net income, then she would be entitled to $45,000 of temporary alimony a year, or $865 a week. If they had kids, child support would be calculated first, then alimony would be calculated based on the paying spouse’s net income after child support.
The court can order retroactive alimony. That means if a paying spouse is not ordered to pay alimony until three months into the divorce process, the court has the power to subject them to three months’ worth of alimony back pay. If you have been suffering as a result of lack of support, you may be entitled to a larger sum of alimony than the formula indicates.
DO I HAVE TO PAY ALIMONY TO AN ABUSIVE SPOUSE?
The Code specifically frees injured or abused spouses from being obligated to pay spousal support. The circumstances that free supporting spouses from paying alimony include:
- Attempted murder
- Solicitation to commit murder
- Sexual assault
Assault of any kind
In matters of domestic violence, even when the abused spouse withdraws charges, alimony calculation may still be affected. The Code also allows the court discretion regarding other relevant factors, as every marriage is different and the factors involved will be radically different every time. Keep in mind that while criminal convictions will matter to alimony agreements, alimony is not punitive (although either party may want to believe that it is).
Many supporting spouses feel they are being punished, but ultimately, alimony is intended to allow both parties to divorce amicably and equitably, to allow them to live their lives apart from each other as peacefully as possible. That’s why alimony is prohibited to abusive or criminally-convicted spouses; the well-being of the abused becomes the court’s priority.
SHORT-TERM MARRIAGES VS. LONG-TERM MARRIAGES
The length of your marriage is often a major factor when it comes to alimony decisions. After all, it is common that the lower-earning spouse has made major concessions to allow the higher-earning spouse to pursue a career—this is especially true for long-term marriages. That’s why courts retain indefinite jurisdiction automatically for marriages of long duration.
The terms of “indefinite jurisdiction” are extremely flexible. While some divorce blogs will treat 10 years of marriage as a legally-binding milestone, it technically isn’t. California code simply says marriages longer than 10 years require no proof to be considered “of long duration” with regard to deciding the court’s authority to order or modify support. It still has the authority to retain jurisdiction over shorter marriages as though they were of long duration.
However, as a practice, courts will treat marriages shorter than 10 years as short-term. This means their jurisdiction to modify alimony agreements will last for as long as half the duration of the marriage. If you were married for six years, your court may only have jurisdiction to change alimony for three years maximum. This usually also means alimony will last that long.
Generally, California laws state that spousal support payments will be made for half the length of the marriage, if it is less than 10 years. Longer marriages, however, do not have durational alimony. The spouse making alimony payments must present to the courts the reasons why spousal support will no longer be necessary.
WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO MODIFY ALIMONY?
For as long as the court has jurisdiction, either party may argue that changing circumstances dictate modification to alimony (either to raise it or lower it). Changing circumstances would include a severe loss of income for the paying spouse, or a lesser need of it for the supported spouse. It would be up to your divorce attorney to help you present your case for modified alimony. However, alimony modification is not possible if both spouses have agreed (either in writing or in oral agreement before a judge) not to leave alimony open to modification.
Commonly cited reasons for modification:
- Loss of income
- Change in lifestyle*
- Sudden increase in income
- Child support modifications
* In one court case, CEO Patrick Meegan decided to leave his job behind and join a monastery. While still willing to pay for educational expenses for his daughters, he sought to end his alimony obligation because he would no longer have an income. The court granted his request.
Keep in mind that for the time period between your changed circumstances and the day you choose to file for modifications, the paying spouse is still obligated to pay the court-ordered amount. If the paying spouse waits several months after the loss of a job before suing for modifications, then he or she will still owe the regular alimony amount for that time period.
Courts sometimes choose to terminate alimony rather than modify it. These circumstances must be far more permanent than loss of job, as termination of alimony is final. As mentioned above, one client had to join a monastery for a court to feel ending alimony was justifiable.
Possible reasons for terminating alimony include:
- Remarriage of the recipient
- Cohabitating with a nonmarital partner
- The death of the recipient or payor
- The spousal support order ends on a certain date
- The spouses both agree to terminate alimony
The spouses can agree in writing to continue alimony past any of these conditions; in some cases, clients may want alimony to continue going to their estate after death. However, no court will order a spouse to continue pay alimony if any of these conditions are true.
- 7 Factors to Consider Before Filing for Divorce
- California Divorce Do’s & Don’ts
- Can My Spouse Fight a California Divorce?
- Facebook’s Role in the National Divorce Rate
- Five Questions to Ask a Divorce Attorney
- Is a Diy Divorce a Good Idea?
- Is Divorce Mediation Right for You?
- No-fault Divorce in California