Navigating the Maze: Understanding Spousal Support Orders in California

Spousal support orders, also known as alimony in some states, can be ordered by the court or agreed upon by settlement. Depending on a couple’s marriage circumstances, spousal support payments may range from a fixed number of years or, in cases of long-term marriages, indefinitely.   

Therefore, understanding the extent of your spousal support obligations is important whether you are preparing to end your marriage or are already subject to a spousal support order. This information can help you prepare for divorce settlement negotiations or determine whether you may be eligible to request a modification to your spousal support order. 

Overview of Spousal Support in California

Under the California Family Code and related case law, spouses have a duty and obligation to support each other. There are two types of spousal support: temporary or “pendente lite” spousal support and permanent spousal support. Each type of order serves a different purpose.

Types and Purposes of Spousal Support Orders in California

Temporary Spousal Support Orders

A temporary order is issued while the divorce is ongoing. The purpose of this order is to maintain the financial “status quo” while the parties attempt to settle or have a trial on the legal issues relating to their divorce.    

The amount of temporary spousal support is generally calculated using computer software programs. These programs produce what is known as “guideline” calculations that courts use when determining an award for temporary spousal support. As such, while courts have wide discretion over issues of temporary spousal support, courts will generally order the guideline amounts calculated by the computer software programs. 

While there may be county-specific or local rules that further determine how temporary spousal support is calculated, the guideline amount that is calculated by widely used computer programs generally already incorporates those rules. Guideline support is calculated using inputs of each party’s income available for support and other financial information. Temporary spousal support is generally awarded to the lower-earning spouse.  

As the name suggests, temporary spousal support is “temporary” in duration. Payments will cease when final judgment is entered or if the parties agree to a specific end date before the entry of judgment. Therefore, it is the stage of the divorce, versus the length of the marriage, that generally determines the length of the payor-spouse’s temporary spousal support obligations. This includes whether the parties obtain an order or reach an agreement on the start of permanent spousal support payments.

Permanent Spousal Support Orders

The purpose of permanent spousal support is to provide the recipient spouse with financial assistance based on a variety of factors provided under Family Code section 4320. When ordering permanent spousal support, courts consider, among others, the following factors:

  • Each party’s ability to maintain the standard of living established during marriage pursuant to their earning capacity; 
  • Whether one spouse performed household/domestic duties during the marriage and, therefore, their present or future earning capacity is impaired by periods of unemployment;
  • The health and age of the parties and others as listed in section 4320. 

Duration of marriage is also one of these factors. In short-term marriages, i.e., less than ten years, the general rule of thumb is that permanent spousal support should last for one-half of the length of the marriage. In a marriage of long duration, i.e., typically ten years or more, one spouse could receive permanent spousal support indefinitely.  

The court has wide discretion over the amount that may be ordered when considering the 4320 factors. Still, it is not permitted to use the guideline amount ordered for temporary spousal support when fixing permanent spousal support orders.   Alternatively, the parties can contract around the amount and duration of permanent spousal support payments.

However, the party receiving permanent spousal support must be aware that they have a legal duty to become self-supporting, notwithstanding their receipt of these orders. And because the court has continuing authority to make subsequent orders on permanent spousal support, the paying party may seek an order terminating or modifying the amount paid in support if sufficient grounds exist.

Modification and Termination of Spousal Support Orders

The paying spouse may request termination or modification of a permanent spousal support order if they can show “a material change in circumstance.”  Among others, this may include losing their job, reduced income through no fault of their own, non-voluntary or early retirement, or becoming disabled. If successful, the paying party can reduce or otherwise terminate their spousal support obligations.

Importance of Professional Guidance and Legal Advice for Alimony Disputes

The laws surrounding spousal support can be complex and applied in nuanced ways based on the couple’s circumstances. If you have questions or concerns about a current or potential spousal support dispute, you may discuss them with the experienced divorce attorneys at Madigan & Lewis LLP. Our certified family law specialists are available to assist you with seeking new or modified orders in California. Schedule your consultation to discuss your needs today.