California courts don't always order spousal support when a couple divorces. When it is awarded, the court has discretion to decide how much support the paying spouse pays, as well as the duration.
Factors the Court Considers
In a divorce in California, the court is required to consider a number of factors when considering whether or not to award spousal support. The California Family Code requires that a judge consider whether each person's earnings are sufficient to maintain the same standard of living they enjoyed during the marriage taking into consideration:
- The ability of a spouse to maintain the current standard of living in light of his or her marketable job skills
- The extent that one spouse contributed to the other's education, training, or license
- Ability of the supporting spouse to pay alimony
- Needs of each person, based on the standard of living they had during the marriage
- The couple's assets and debts
- How long the marriage lasted
- Ability of the recipient spouse to work without unduly interfering with the interest of any minor children in his or her custody
- Age and health of both parties
- Documented history of domestic violence (includes emotional distress)
- Tax consequences to each spouse
- Balance of hardships to each person
- Conviction of an abusive spouse on domestic violence charges
- Any other factors the court considers to be equitable and just
How Support Is Calculated
California courts award spousal support with the goal of preserving the recipient spouse's former lifestyle as much as possible. Although divorce courts in the state don't use any specific mathematical formula to calculate support, they consider a number of factors when determining how much support to award:
- How long it will take the recipient to develop marketable skills
- The possible need for the recipient to retrain for better skills
- Whether the recipient's earning ability was impaired by taking time off to be a homemaker or to care for children
- Whether the recipient compromised his or her own career to support the opposite spouse while he or she pursued higher education or a professional license
- The ability of a spouse to pay support
- Each spouse's needs based on the standard of living during the marriage
- Each spouse's assets and liabilities
- The length of the marriage
- The recipient's ability to work without compromising the needs of the kids
- Each spouse's age and health
- Documented evidence of domestic violence
- Tax consequences to either side
- The balance of hardships to either side
Recipient's Goal to Become Self-supporting
In addition to the rather lengthy list of factors courts use to make alimony decisions, they also consider how long it will take the support recipient to become self-supporting. The goal is for the recipient spouse to become self-supporting within a reasonable amount of time.
The exception to this general rule is when the marriage was a long one. Under the provisions of Section 4336 of the California Family Code, a long-term marriage is one that lasted 10 years or more. Courts calculate the length of the marriage from the day of the wedding to the date of separation.
Terminating and Modifying Support
After a court awards support, the spouses might need to change it or terminate it down the road.
Spousal support in California ends when a recipient spouse dies, remarries, or enters into a new domestic partnership. The California courts provide a free form the paying spouse can file to request the court to stop the support payments.
Either spouse can also ask the court to increase or decrease the support if they experience a "change in circumstances." Under California law, significant changes include, among other things, a loss of income or a child reaching adulthood and leaving home. If the spouses can agree on a modification, they can simply submit their new agreement to the court. If they can't reach an agreement, however, one spouse must file a request for modification with the court.
No Automatic Alimony
Alimony in California is never an automatic decision. A support-seeking spouse must first petition the court to receive it. The final decision rests with the judge, and in most cases courts don't award permanent alimony. Permanent spousal support is reserved for cases that feature extremely long marriages or where one party is chronically ill or disabled.