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.