Do I Have to Pay Spousal Support in California Though My Spouse Makes Six Figures?

One of the most misunderstood concepts in family law is that there is a universal, or at least nationwide, set of rules that applies to divorces. There is not, and each state sets its own laws applying to divorces. So what you saw in a movie, or what you heard about a celebrity divorce in the news, or what happened to your cousin or college roommate in her divorce in Boston may not apply to you in California. There are widespread commonalities among the laws of the states with respect to some areas of divorce law, but, in other areas, not so much.

An aspect of divorce law with perhaps the most distinct variance among the various state laws is that of spousal support, or alimony (for starters, California calls ongoing payments to an ex-spouse after a divorce “spousal support” while many other states and popular culture call it “alimony”). There are a number of states, particularly in the South, where an ex-spouse may only be awarded spousal support if he or she cannot make ends meet at all.

California is very different, and many commentators agree that California has the most “generous” spousal support laws in the nation from the perspective of the party seeking spousal support. Meaning, yes, even if your spouse makes six figures and can “provide” for himself or herself in the sense of paying rent and other bills, he or she may nonetheless be eligible for a significant spousal support award in a California divorce.

California Spousal Support Awards Are Based on the Marital Standard of Living

Unlike other states which may provide spousal support awards that are capped at a certain amount or only where it is necessary for survival, California courts award spousal support based on the standard of living as enjoyed during the time of marriage. In other words, a court will determine a spousal support amount award based on not what it is necessary to simply pay for the bare necessities of life but rather to approximate the lifestyle enjoyed by that spouse during the marriage, at least for a reasonable period of time, and in consideration of the fact that maintaining two households post-divorce is more expensive than maintaining one household during the marriage.

All of which is to say that, even though your spouse may earn $125,000 a year, which puts him or her towards the relative top of earners, if you are earning ten times more (making $1.25 million a year), and that was the lifestyle enjoyed during the marriage, there is a risk that you will be paying significant amounts in spousal support.

To be clear, however, the above is a general proposition of California’s spousal support laws, and there are a number of factors that a judge will consider in setting an award, including, among other things: 1) the current incomes of both spouses at the time of divorce or earning capacities; 2) the assets owned by each party; 3) whether domestic violence occurred in the marriage; 4) whether one party contributed to household tasks to support the other’s work; 5) the contributions to each other’s education, and other factors.

How Long Do I Have to Pay Spousal Support?

Beyond setting a spousal support amount, another critical issue in a divorce is determining the duration of time that support should be paid. There are some general rules in this area in California. For marriages under ten years, spousal support is often paid for half the length of the marriage, measured from the wedding date to the date of separation, e.g. support would be paid for four years in an eight-year marriage. For marriages over ten years, courts will award spousal support on an indefinite basis, meaning it could last for longer than half the length of the marriage, but the supported party will be encouraged to become self-supporting and a court may later terminate or modify the support award.

Furthermore, support typically ends upon the death of either party, or the remarriage of the supported party. In all cases, parties are free to negotiate their own award amount and duration outside of court, but such negotiation is generally conducted based on what a court might award.

The Difference Between Temporary and Final Spousal Support

One key distinction in the world of California spousal support awards is that between the temporary spousal support that can be awarded shortly after a petition for divorce is filed, and the final spousal support award made at the time of trial or judgment, in other words when the divorce is finalized. Temporary spousal support is often determined by a formula based on the parties’ current incomes. This award can be quite high compared to what would be awarded in a final support award, either through a judge awarding support or the parties reaching an agreement on temporary support. Because temporary support awards are usually higher (and in some cases much higher) than a final award, this can be used as leverage to reach a settlement more quickly.

Obtaining a Post-Judgment Reduction of Spousal Support

Unless the parties agree that spousal support cannot be modified after a judgment, both parties are free to seek a modification later if circumstances change, such as if the ex-spouse receiving support is in a significantly better financial situation some time after the judgment. In fact, those receiving spousal support on an indefinite basis are generally put on notice at the time of judgment that they are expected to make efforts to become self-supporting after the marriage. Thus, if you are paying spousal support to an ex-spouse who has obtained a significantly higher-paying job or receives a large inheritance after the divorce, you should consider seeking a modification and/or termination of support.

Guidance on Your California Family Law Questions From a Westlake Village Family Law Attorney

If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on any California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.