Spousal Support Orders in California
The issue of spousal support often comes up in a dissolution or legal separation.
Because it is such a common issue, it is necessary to understand what it is, how it is determined, how long it lasts, and how it can be modified.
Spousal support, otherwise known as “alimony,” is a certain sum of money that one spouse pays the other spouse after the spouses separate.
In California there are two types of spousal support: temporary, which is also known as “pendente lite,” and long-term, which is also known as “permanent.”
What is Temporary Spousal Support?
Temporary spousal support is support that may be awarded while a dissolution or legal separation action is pending. Many individuals believe an action is pending from the time the petition is filed to the time a judgment is entered. However, an action is considered pending up until a final determination is made on appeal or until the time for appeal has passed. California Code of Civil Procedure section 1049. The purpose of temporary spousal support is to enable the recipient spouse to live in his or her accustomed manner. Estate v. Fawcett, 232 Cal.App.2d 770, 784 (1965).
When courts make orders for temporary spousal support they have the authority to order support in any amount based on one spouse’s need and the other spouse’s ability to pay. California Family Code section 3600. To make this determination courts apply a “guideline” formula. Typically, this means that courts use some sort of support calculation software, into which they the plug each spouse’s respective income, along with other information, to come to a spousal support amount. If special financial circumstances exist, which are not taken into account by the “guideline” formula, the courts modify the formula. Marriage of Burlini, 143 Cal.App.3d 65, 69 (1983).
Temporary spousal support lasts until (1) a judgment has been entered in the case (Wilson v. Superior Court, 31 Cal.2d 458, 462 (1948)); (2) the case has been dismissed (Moore v. Superior Court, 8 Cal.App.3d 804, 810 (1970)); (3) the support order has expired under its own terms; or (4) the recipient of the support remarries or either spouse passes away (California Family Code section 4337).
An order for temporary spousal support may be modified at any time during the pendency of the proceeding. In some California courts a spouse may be required to demonstrate a change of circumstances in order to modify support, while other courts will not require this. At the very least it is necessary to supply the court with a reason for the request to modify the support.
What is Long-Term Spousal Support?
Long-term spousal support is support that may be awarded in a judgment of dissolution or legal separation. The purpose of long-term spousal support is to maintain the supported spouse in the same standard of living as that during the marriage. Marriage of Ackerman, 146 Cal.App.4th 191, 209 (2006).
When a court orders long-term spousal support, they have wide discretion in setting the amount and the duration of the support. Marriage of Wilson, 201 Cal.App.3d 913, 916 (1988). Although given much discretion, they must consider the marital standard of living and they must consider the fourteen factors listed in Family Code section 4320, which are often referred to as the “4320 factors.”
The 4320 factors are as follows:
- The extent to which each party’s earning capacity will maintain the standard of living established during the marriage.
- The extent to which the supported party contributed to the supporting party’s education, training, or career position.
- The supporting party’s ability to pay, taking into account earning capacity, earned and unearned income, assets, and standard of living.
- Each party’s needs, based on standard of living established during the marriage.
- Each party’s assets (including separate property) and obligations.
- The duration of the marriage.
- The supported party’s ability to be gainfully employed without interfering with the interests of the dependent children in his or her custody.
- Each party’s age and health.
- Documented evidence of any history of domestic violence between the parties, or perpetrated by either party against either party’s child, including emotional distress resulting from violence.
- The immediate and specific tax consequences to each party.
- The balance of the hardships on each party.
- The goal that the supported party be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time.
- The criminal conviction of an abusive spouse when the court is reducing or eliminating a spousal support award.
- Any other factors the court deems just and equitable.
Duration of Spousal Support
The duration of long-term spousal support is usually based on the length of the marriage. If a marriage lasted ten years or longer, it is considered a marriage of long duration, and the court will retain jurisdiction over spousal support indefinitely, unless both spouses agree in writing to a termination date.
If a marriage lasted less than ten years, it is considered a short-term marriage, and spousal support usually lasts no longer than half the duration of the marriage. This means that if you were married for six years, long-term spousal support will be ordered for up to three years.
Terminating or Modifying Spousal Support
Long-term spousal support is always terminated upon either party’s death or on the supported party’s remarriage, unless the parties agree to the contrary in writing. California Family Code section 4337.
If a spouse wishes to modify the long-term spousal support order he or she must demonstrate that there has been a material change of circumstances, meaning a change in the 4320 factors. Marriage of Gavron, 203 CA.3d 705, 710 (1988). In some cases, even if a spouse demonstrates a material change of circumstances, the court may not modify support. However, if the spouses agree to modify, no change of circumstances is necessary.
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