There is nothing more confusing about California Family Law than the issue of spousal support. Being misinformed about this topic frequently causes people to make poor decisions and employ faulty strategies during their divorce proceedings. The following list of questions and answers should be helpful to anyone in need of information concerning spousal support in California.
- What is the purpose of spousal support?
The law recognizes the fact that most married people become financially dependent on each other, and when they stop living together, one of the parties may suffer without the support from the ex-spouse. Therefore, when possible, spousal support is supposed to provide enough time and money to allow the supported party to become self-supporting.
- What factors will the court consider before ordering spousal support?
When the Court determines whether or not to issue a spousal support order, it has to find that one of the parties has the need for support and the other party has the ability to pay. The court takes into consideration numerous common sense factors delineated within the family code, including: the parties’ income and assets, their age, heath, education, work history, the marital standard of living, the nature of the relationship between the parties (i.e., did one stay at home to take care of the household while the other spouse advanced in his or her career), whether or not there are minor children, and whether or not there was domestic violence.
So long as the Family Court weighs the above-mentioned factors, it has wide discretion in awarding spousal support.
- What is the duration of spousal support?
In California we have different sets of rules for marriages that are less than ten years from those that exceed ten years. In marriages of less than ten years, the general approach is the duration of support will be for one half of the length of the marriage. Marriages that exceed ten years are presumed to be "long time marriages," in which case the court may not terminate jurisdiction over this issue and we generally expect to see long term obligations. However, there are instances where the Family Court will depart from the above presumptions. For example, a court may determine a marriage is a long term marriage when the parties have been married for nine years and six months, and the evidence proved the parties had been living together for several years before the marriage. Conversely, there could be a scenario where the Court finds there was a short term marriage even though the parties were married for ten years, because they only lived together for 6 months.
- Is spousal support modifiable?
Unless the parties agree to a "non-modifiable" spousal support order, the orders are modifiable. Spousal support obligations are modifiable in California when there is evidence of a material change of circumstances of the parties' financial situations. For example, a loss of a job and the income previously used to calculate support would probably constitute a material change of circumstances. It is also recognized in California that after a long passage of time of one party paying support, the time itself may constitute a material change of circumstance, so long as the supported party has been warned by the Court to seek employment and make efforts to become self -supporting.
- Do people have to pay spousal support after they retire?
Whether or not a person has to pay spousal support after he or she retires depends on if the payer of support has the continued ability to pay support after retirement and if person asking for support still has the need for support.
A scenario where spousal support may continue post retirement is when the supported party has a nice paying pension and the other party's income pales in comparison. This type of scenario is likely to occur when the parties' marriage came late in life and the pension is the separate property of only one of the parties.
- Do the courts order people to continue working even though they can retire?
Long standing law in California provides that when the payer of spousal support reaches the age of retirement, he or she is allowed to retire and the court may not impute to the party his or her pre-retirement income. Based on a recent appellate court decision, the supported spouse can also retire and the court may not impute pre-retirement income to him or her.
- Is there such a thing as lifetime spousal support?
Although the Family Code does not describe "lifetime spousal support" orders, there are scenarios where spousal support may last until one of the parties dies. A situation such as this would occur when the parties agree to a “non-modifiable” support order with no termination date (we usually advise against entering into such orders). Another scenario would be if the Court orders spousal support after the receiving spouse retired and the supporting spouse continues to have the ability to pay support until either one of the dies.
In conclusion, due to the wide discretion of the Family Court, and the numerous factors the judge must consider, it would be hard if not impossible to predict the amount and duration of spousal support that will be issued. However, with a basic understanding of the above explanation, a person can make better decisions on how to proceed with their case.