20 Frequently Asked Questions (And To-The-Point Answers) About Spousal Support (AKA Alimony) in California

By Jeremy Masys, Esq.

One of the most perplexing issues people going through divorce in California face is the issue of spousal support, AKA alimony. Which all come down to variations of the two questions “how much can I get?” and “how much do I have to pay?” but there are often a lot of other questions to be answered in getting to that question. 

A main reason the issue of spousal support in California is so confusing to those going through the divorce process is because, while there is plenty of “law” on the topic, that law never really gives you numbers (at least not numbers that are easily accessible) and there is an enormous amount of discretion that judges have in setting those numbers. Most people can wrap their heads relatively easy around the basic concepts of property (50/50 split of community property) and custody/visitation (what is in the best interests of the child), but spousal support is murky to be sure. 

To add to this, when clients ask their attorneys about spousal support numbers, oftentimes attorneys will give a deeply unsatisfying answer that boils down to “it depends.” There is of course truth to this, and in some cases, it may be very unclear, but in a lot of cases attorneys could be giving their clients way more pointed guidance than they actualy do. 

With all that said, let’s go through 20 frequently asked questions about spousal support in California with some very to-the-point answers (with the caveat that, yes, to some extent “it depends” is quite often going to be the case with questions about spousal support). 

Q: Can a man get spousal support from an ex-wife?

A: Yes. (No “it depends” on this one!).

Q: Do we have to have been married for a certain amount of time for one spouse to pay spousal support to the other?

A: No. (Another no “it depends”!). But the duration of the marriage will affect the duration of the spousal support. 

Q: Got it. So how long do I have to pay spousal support?

A: It depends (sorry). But for marriages under ten years, courts generally order spousal support for half the length of the marriage, measured from the date of marriage to the date of separation. Meaning if you were married for six years, spousal support would be paid for three years. For marriages over ten years, the duration is a little trickier. 

Q: Right, I heard that if I stay married for ten years, then I get guaranteed spousal support forever, correct?

A: No! You might. But it’s not “guaranteed” for several reasons. First, there is always the question of whether you would be entitled to spousal support in the first place. But even if you are, the Court will expect you to make efforts to be self-supporting over time. With marriages over ten years, a Court can retain indefinite jurisdiction to make an award of spousal support – meaning the Court would have the ability to award support indefinitely over and above half the length of the marriage – but that doesn’t mean a Court will continue to award it indefinitely. Still, yes, a person seeking spousal support who was in a marriage lasting over ten years is going to probably be in a better position than someone who was not. 

Q: Can I just pay spousal support in one lump sum?

A: Yes, assuming the other party agrees to doing so. Many divorces are resolved with a negotiated agreement by which one party pays a lump sum of spousal support to the other party. 

Q: Can I get spousal support (or “do I have to pay spousal support”) if we didn’t have kids?

A: Yes (another straight ahead one). Spousal support is entirely separate from child support, and whether or not you have children has no bearing on whether you are eligible for spousal support (although the efforts of one party to take care of children in lieu of earning income can have an effect on the amount and duration). 

Q: Do I have to pay spousal support if my ex gets remarried?

A: Generally, no under the law (although this can be negotiated). Under the California Family Code, spousal support ends at the death of either party or the remarriage of the supported party, unless the parties have an agreement otherwise.

Q: But what if my ex just moves in with someone else but doesn’t get married?

A: This is trickier, but spousal support can at least be modified if not terminated where the supported party is cohabitating and being supported by a new romantic interest to whom they are not married. 

Q: If I stop earning income, can I stop paying spousal support?

A: You can’t stop paying unilaterally, but yes either party can request that the Court make a modification of spousal support after a divorce where either party’s financial circumstances have changed significantly (although some parties negotiate spousal support to not allow for such modifications). This modification can make the support higher or lower.

Q: Okay, but what I really want to know is how much I have to pay (or how much I can expect to get paid) in spousal support?

A: It depends (again, sorry). But let me provide more explanation. First we have to talk about the difference between temporary spousal support and permanent spousal support…

Q: Wait, what? 

A: Hold on! I’m getting to it. Temporary spousal support – also called pendente lite spousal support if you like a little Latin with your legalese (and, really, what kind of philistine doesn’t?) – is spousal support that can be requested at any time during the divorce proceedings, including right after the initial petition is filed, and can last until the divorce is finalized. Permanent spousal support is the spousal support that is part of a final divorce judgment. 

Q: Permanent spousal support as in forever?

A: No, that’s just a term for it being a final support award. A five-year award of spousal support in a final judgment is literally “temporary” in that it only lasts five years but is considered “permanent” or “final” in the sense that it is a settled matter part of a final judgment order. 

Q: This is confusing.

A: That’s technically not a question. And yet I’m counting it towards your 20. But, yes, it can be at first. Also, your attorney will know all of this. 

Q: So how much will I receive/pay in temporary spousal support?

A: Under California law, a Court can simply take the respective incomes of each spouse, and plug them into a formula in a program called Dissomaster and that program will spit out a temporary spousal support number with the idea of partially equalizing the monthly incomes of each party. But a Court can also hear all other kinds of evidence as well that is relevant to setting a fair spousal support number, such as one party’s ability to work or to earn higher income, and other factors from the marriage. 

Q: Can I get this Dissomaster program online for free?

A: Not that I’m aware of. It’s a proprietary software, but your attorney should have a copy and they should be responsive to you in asking for potential scenarios from the program. 

Q: Alright, well how is permanent spousal support set?

A: And we have now come to the ultimate “it depends” question and answer. A Court sets permanent spousal support based on what are called the “4320 factors” named after California Family Code 4320. These factors include:

The age and health of both parties

Whether one party stopped working to take care of children and/or support the other spouse

Whether one party would need time to learn new skills (e.g. go back to school) to become self-supporting

Any history of domestic violence

Whether the supported party has marketable skills, education, etc. to go earn a living and be self-supporting

The marital standard of living enjoyed by the couple during a marriage (e.g. did you vacation around the world for six months a year, or was every weekend netflix and chill in your shared studio apartment the entire time you were married?)

The needs of the party based on the marital standard of living (using what some might consider a rather loose approach to the concept of “needs”)

Whether one party contributed to the education of the other party 

The total obligations and assets of each party

The duration of the marriage

Basically any other fact that the Court deems relevant to determining what a fair spousal support award is…

Q: Stop right there. I sort of get these factors but how do I actually calculate with precision what a Judge will order in spousal support?

A: You don’t! This is where the “it depends” comes from. Not only do Judges have the ability to review evidence on all of the above factors, they have quite a lot of discretion in setting what that spousal support amount should be. 

Q: Am I wrong to say that this sounds like it could be a very expensive and complex issue to go to trial on?

A: No, you’re not wrong. It definitely could be. And it would be difficult to predict what result you’d get.

Q: So how do I avoid that?

A: Good thing you asked. Very few divorces go to trial on the issue of spousal support for these very reasons. Generally what happens is the parties negotiate a number and amount in light of the above factors, and often use the Dissomaster as a guide in reaching these numbers, with the understanding that temporary spousal support is often higher than what a Court would order in a trial to set permanent support. 

Q: Can we enter into mediation to mediate a spousal support number?

A: Absolutely! And mediation may well be the best way to resolve the issue of spousal support for many parties. This question deserves a blog of it’s own (and it will come in due time), but, to put it briefly, in mediation the spouses can work together in a collaborative environment to figure out what funds are available for support, what each party needs for their respective lifestyles post-divorce, and what is fair and mutually beneficial to one another in light of the law and/or their own personal concerns.  

Contact a Los Angeles Divorce Attorney/Mediator With Further Questions on Spousal Support

At the Mediation and Law Offices of Jeremy Masys, I serve as a mediator between divorcing spouses and attorney to those in mediation, negotiation and litigation. If you have any questions about spousal support or other family law issues, please contact me at 213-478-0089 or by entering your information below.

10 Tips for Discussing With Your Soon-To-Be-Ex-Spouse Whether Mediation Is Right For You

by Jeremy Masys

At the outset of a divorce, there are typically two difficult series of conversations you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse have, or at least should be having: 1) whether one or both of you is moving ahead with seeking a divorce, and 2) figuring out the process (e.g. both of you hire expensive lawyers, trying to figure the paperwork and negotiation out on your own, and so on) by which you are going to get the divorce done in the Court so that you are legally divorced and both of you get a result you are comfortable with moving forward in life. 

I and many others in the California family law field are strong proponents of the proposition that mediation is in many cases a far more preferable alternative to resolving your divorce legally, as compared to the stressful and expensive process of having attorneys fight it out inside or outside of court, or the confusing and annoying process of two people trying to figure out the law and paperwork on their own when they’re not even sure what their rights and obligations are under California law. 

The benefits of mediation to resolve your divorce are well-explained in this blog and elsewhere, but very basically: divorce mediation with a knowledgeable and skilled legal professional gives you the best of both worlds in that you can understand your rights and options with the guidance of an impartial mediation while avoiding the high legal fees, stress, and very long delay that often comes with trying to argue your way to a result in an overcrowded, overburdened public courtroom in a front of a judge who has hundreds and hundreds of cases on their docket. 

But it takes two to tango with mediation. Because mediation is a voluntary process, both you and your spouse have to agree to enter into mediation, and you have to agree on the same mediator. And trying to get an agreement on anything at the time your marriage is dissolving may feel like a task not worth the effort. But let’s be very clear: getting to a successful mediation is absolutely worth the effort when compared to months or years in court, legal fees to both of you in the tens of thousands (if not higher), and the severe emotional strain that a contested, adversarial and drawn-out legal fight can put on you and your children. 

In other words, yes, getting an agreement from your spouse to try mediation may be a chore, but it’s worth it in the vast majority of cases. 

With that, here are 10 tips for discussing with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse whether mediation is right for you: 

  1. Before you have the discussion, do a little bit of your own research (as in an hour or so, but more if you feel so led) on the benefits of mediation, so you are prepared to make a case for why it would be a good idea for both of you. 
  2. Taking that one step further, spend a little time thinking about the tangible benefits mediation could be for the two of you in your specific circumstances and write those down. Such reasons could be: 1) we can figure out a custody schedule for [insert your child’s name] that works for her and us without dragging it through the courts; 2) we can get this done without digging into our 401ks; 3) we can figure out a way to keep this house and split the equity fairly, while preserving our collective net worth by not spending tons of money on lawyers, etc. 
  3. Email or print out articles on the benefits of mediation that you think would appeal to your spouse and share them with him or her.
  4. Find the names of a couple mediators that you would feel comfortable working with, and who would potentially appeal to your spouse as well. This way you can give options so as it does not seem to be forcing the process of working with a specific mediator. 
  5. Set a specific time to have the conversation on “how we are going to get this done” so that your spouse doesn’t feel ambushed, and so that they have time to prepare and think about what their goals and concerns are. 
  6. In the conversation, stress that mediation is a voluntary process and that both you and your spouse can choose to discontinue the process at any time and go to court if they so choose. In other words, neither party is giving up anything other than the modest time and fees associated with mediation to try the process out. 
  7. Also make it clear to the other spouse that a mediator – by definition – cannot and will not force any decisions on him or her. 
  8. Encourage your spouse to do their own research if they want, and to seek out other names of mediators if they so choose.
  9. Don’t demand an answer in a first conversation, although, if you get one, great. Understand that the other spouse likely has their own fears and insecurities about the process and may need time to get their mind around what their options are. 
  10. That said, do be persistent and patient with encouraging mediation. You may well want to say “screw it, let’s go to court” in a moment of frustration, but the negative consequences of that are often so great that sucking it up and letting the process of agreeing to mediation play out is worth the annoyance and minor delay. 

Contact a Los Angeles Divorce Mediator With Further Questions

At the Mediation and Law Offices of Jeremy Masys, I serve as a mediator between divorcing spouses and consulting attorney to those in mediation. If you have any questions about mediation, please contact me at 213-478-0089 or by entering your information here.

Do I Need a Lawyer in a California Divorce If We’re Just Going to Mediation?

By Jeremy Masys

If you’re in the divorce process in California, thinking about divorce, or if it seems like your spouse is considering divorce, then there is a good chance you are considering mediation, even if you are not exactly sure what divorce mediation is.

Why? There are many reasons mediation is beneficial, but here a few of the basics:

  • Spending several hours with a mediator to sort out your differences and work towards a settlement of your issues in your divorce can save you many thousands of dollars in legal fees that could otherwise go into writing up combative court filings, appearing in contentious court hearings, and so on.
  • You can sort these issues out with your spouse and a mediator trained in the art of fostering agreement in a private room, without objecting lawyers, an intimidating judge watching over, and the peanut gallery of several dozen randos in the courtroom waiting for their own turn in the hot seat (again, all while your legal bill is going up hundreds of dollars per hour, even if your lawyer is just sitting there during another 11 or so cases called that morning).
  • You and your spouse can get the divorce process moving at an infinitely faster pace than the litigation process of waiting weeks and months between every hearing, while your financial and relational future hangs in the balance (and while a new bill from your attorney shows up every month).
  • The two of you can hopefully resolve your issues without being at each other’s throats any more than you might already be – which can often be an unfortunate and understandable (yet not at all necessary) byproduct of the litigation process – and this is a huge positive when you need to go on raising children together, or, at the very least, salvaging whatever friendship or at least semi-affirming vibes might still exist, even if the lifetime partnership plan didn’t go exactly as planned.

So if mediation is so great, why doesn’t everyone do it? Well, several reasons.

  • Not everyone is honest or committed to playing fair in the divorce process, for starters, meaning the more sharp-edged tools of litigation are sometimes necessary.
  • Sadly, emotions can go haywire in divorce, making compromise a challenge. While you don’t have to even like each other to have an effective mediation, it is helpful to all parties involved to have something other than the unending misery of your soon-to-be-ex as a primary goal in order to make mediation work.
  • Lawyers tend to make a lot more money when spouses are willing to pour tens of thousands into their law firm’s coffers to conduct an all-out courtroom battle as opposed to settling things quickly in mediation, so not all lawyers will make meditation a priority when the possibility of a $50,000 or $250,000 legal payday is an option.

You can’t control what your spouse does (which I’m guessing you’ve learned by now if you’re reading this), but you can certainly explore the option of mediation and offer it up to your spouse as a mutually beneficial option for getting out of this thing with minimal bloodletting.

Which leads to the question – do you even need a lawyer if you’re going to do mediation?

My stock answer to any “do I need a lawyer” question is you never necessarily “need” a lawyer. You can represent yourself in court in any situation, short of being declared too insane to do so. But, of course, your relative results from doing so may not be great.

And, because divorce is, for most people who go through it, one of the most (if not the most) financially significant experience of their lives, not to mention the impact it will have on relations with your children, the idea of mediating a divorce without ever speaking to an attorney who can advise you personally at least once seems highly inadvisable. And potentially catastrophic.

It’s Hard to Mediate Well If You Don’t Know What Your Rights Are

A quick rundown on what exactly mediation is: in mediation, you and your spouse will attempt to create a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) which will address and resolve all of the issues in your divorce: spousal support (alimony), division of all property and debts, child custody and visitation, and child support.

You and your spouse can create this MSA on your own, which means you wouldn’t even need mediation, or you can go to mediation in which a mediator will use strategies to help you reach that MSA. The mediator won’t make the decisions for you, but might offer potential compromises or encourage the two of you to explore new options in the hopes of reaching an agreement.

But what you mediator will most likely not do is tell you what your rights are under the law. If you actually know what your rights are to, for example, spousal support, you are in a much better position to negotiate with your spouse and/or agree to a compromise offered by the mediator. If the mediator suggests an option by which you receive $1,000/month in spousal support for two years, but you had no idea you would be more likely entitled to something in the range of $2,500/month for five years, then mediation without a lawyer might not really be in your best interest.

Similarly, if your spouse is demanding $3,000/month in spousal support for three years, but you are not sure if he or she is entitled to anything (or even if they should be paying you), then you’re not going to be feeling great about making big decisions in the mediation process on your own.

Don’t Expect Your Mediator to Explain (Or Even Know) the Law

Last summer, I took a course at an LA community college on mediation. It met every Saturday for about five hours for four weeks. It cost less than $300 total. One other person in the class was a lawyer, but no one else had any legal training. We talked about some interesting strategies for helping people reach an agreement, watched some cheesy training videos from the 1990s, did some role playing exercises, and never once discussed how the law would actually fit into any given situation, or even what you might do to figure out what the law might be.

At the end, we were given certificates indicating that we were now mediators in California.

We didn’t even need the certificates. There is no licensing system for mediators in California. You want to be a mediator in California? Congrats, you’re now a mediator. Now go to Kinkos and get some business cards and fire up the Squarespace to create your new mediation services website.

I’m not joking. Certainly, there are incredible mediators, and specifically many wonderful mediators in the family law space who know more about family law than just about anyone else out there (and as a result may be wildly out of your price range). But there are also mediators out there who don’t have the faintest idea of what the law is regarding your rights to property, support, custody, and so on.

And, no matter what your mediator may or may not about the law, remember that they are not necessarily there to tell you what those rights are, or to even explain the basics of the law to you. Which, again, makes it tough to reach an agreement you can feel good about, when you don’t know what result you would get in court with a judge actually applying the law to your situation.

Mediators Are Seeking Agreement (But Not Necessarily Your Best Interests)

Why don’t mediators explain the law? As I was told in the mediation class I took, the job of the mediator is not to reach a fair result, it’s really just to reach a result. I don’t know that all mediators work that way, but the ethos of that course was that the one and only goal of a mediator is for the two parties to reach an agreement. Whether or not it is a good agreement for the respective parties was beside the point.

Certainly, not all mediators seek after an agreement at any cost, no matter how much it deprives one party of his or her rights and/or creates a crushing yet unnecessary result. But it is generally the case that a mediator is there to get you and your spouse to sign on the dotted line of something, not to reach best possible result under the law for you.

Mediating Is Just One Step (If That) of the California Divorce Process

At this point, I may need to remind you that, despite all the warnings given above, mediation is often an extremely beneficial alternative to litigation as a way of ending your marriage. Just as Winston Churchill declared democracy to be “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” for many people mediation is the worst way of resolving your California divorce matter, except for all the others.

But, even in the best possible mediation situation, understand that you are not going to walk into a mediation and walk out divorced. Hopefully, you can avoid going to a court hearing, but you will still need to complete and file a number of state legal forms, as well as serve financial disclosures on your spouse, before your divorce is final. And the information in the court filings and financial disclosures of yours and your spouses will likely serve as the basis for any well-mediated settlement. And that’s assuming that those documents have been filled out accurately and comprehensively, which can be assuming a lot.

And while we’re assuming things, this is also assuming the mediation process actually results in you and your spouse reaching a resolution of all of the issues in your divorce. Which I hope it does. But that is also a big assumption, to say the least.

All of which is to say that, while mediation can accomplish a lot in getting you to the finish line of a fair and finalized divorce, there may be a number of other aspects of your divorce for which you will need legal assistance.

Even Just One Consultation With an Attorney Can Vastly Improve Your Chances for Beneficial Mediation

Talking to an attorney about an upcoming mediation or the possibility of mediation does not mean you need to hire that attorney to represent you through your entire divorce. You can speak to an attorney for as little or as much as you’d like about the mediation without having that attorney be the attorney of record in your divorce.

Even just a single consultation with an attorney can help you understand:

  • What potential range of results you could expect in court regarding your rights and obligations with respect to community property, spousal support, child support, custody/visitation, all with the intention of properly adjusting your expectations and goals for mediation
  • What strategies you can use before, during, and after the mediation to get the results you desire
  • What procedural aspects will be involved with turning the mediation into a Marital Settlement Agreement and finalized divorce
  • Any other issues regarding the mediation process you want to understand

I provide by-the-hour consultation in addition to full and limited-scope representation in California family law matters. Contact my office to discuss your options and/or schedule a consultation.