Alimony is monthly support payments that a judge has ordered one spouse to pay the other while the divorce is pending or once it is finalized. Alimony is referred to as spousal support in California, or partner support for domestic partnerships. The monthly amount of spousal support, the payment schedule, and how it is calculated varies widely from state to state. Courts in California usually award spousal support to the lower-earning spouse who is dependent upon the other spouse’s financial support. The main goals are to promote economic fairness, to ensure that the dependent spouse can eventually support him/herself, and to allow the lower-earning spouse to maintain the reasonable standard of living that existed during the marriage.
There are various types of spousal and partner support depending on the purpose for which it is being ordered, with two main categories of permanent and temporary.
Permanent alimony is typical for long-term marriages. It continues indefinitely, until a designated date, or until the recipient spouse gets remarried or dies. Permanent alimony allows the dependent spouse to sustain the standard of living established during the marriage. Payments begin when the divorce is finalized, and is usually paid periodically, but can be paid in a lump sum.
Temporary alimony is ordered before the divorce becomes final. It is paid when the spouses are separated during divorce proceedings. Temporary alimony is designed to support the dependent spouse until a more long-term solution is achieved.
One spouse pays rehabilitative alimony only until the other spouse becomes self-supporting. This type of financial support lasts for a brief period of time to allow the recipient spouse to adjust to being divorced.
The judge may order a lump sum alimony instead of a property settlement. One spouse might have to pay a one-time sum in place of the traditional division of assets. This type of alimony does not take into account whether the recipient spouse remarries or cohabits with a new partner.
The judge can order reimbursement alimony in certain cases to repay one spouse for the expenses of the other. The most common cases of reimbursement alimony are when the paying spouse supported the other as he/she completed training, an internship, or an education program. For example, if a wife supported the household while her husband pursued a medical degree, the wife may be entitled to reimbursement for those contributions, especially if she also expected to eventually benefit from the medical degree.
For temporary spousal support, many local courts generally use a formula to calculate the award amount. The formula may vary slightly from county to county. Check your local court’s rules or consult with a divorce attorney about how temporary alimony is calculated in your country. You can find your local county rules here. When calculating parties’ incomes, the judge usually goes back approximately 12 months.
For long-term or permanent alimony orders, the judge cannot use a computer program to calculate the amount. California courts calculate the amount of alimony by looking to the set of factors listed in California Family Code section 4320, which include:
- The length of the marriage or domestic partnership,
- Each person’s age and health,
- Each person’s earned and unearned income, assets, and property,
- What each person pays or can pay to maintain the standard of living they had during the marriage or domestic partnership, including each person’s earning capacity, employment opportunities, marketable skills, the job market for those skills, the expenses required to obtain the appropriate education or training to develop those skills,
- Whether one spouse’s career was affected by unemployment or by having to take care of minor children,
- Each person’s liabilities and debts,
- Each person’s needs based on the standard of living they had during the marriage or domestic partnership,
- Each person’s contribution to the marriage or domestic partnership,
- Whether having a job would make it too hard to care for children,
- What one spouse contributed to the attainment of the other’s education, career, or training, and
- Any documented history of domestic violence or criminal convictions.
The judge has discretion to consider any other factors he/she thinks are relevant.
California courts may order one spouse to pay spousal support for a reasonable period of time. Judges have discretion as to how long this “reasonable period” will last (within guidelines and principals). The judge contemplates various factors in coming up with an equitable time frame. Especially in longer marriages, courts can modify the alimony even after payments have ended.
How long spousal support lasts in California depends largely on the duration of the marriage. If the marriage lasted fewer than ten years, the period of support will generally equal one half of the duration of the marriage. For example, for a marriage that lasted eight years, one spouse will pay support for four years. If a marriage lasted ten years or longer, the lower-earning spouse will receive spousal support for as long as the court orders and the other spouse is able to pay.
Marriages lasting ten years or more are considered long-term marriages. In cases of long-term marriages, the court may revisit issues of spousal support indefinitely. This does not mean that a spouse is entitled to spousal support indefinitely, or that a court must order support indefinitely to a marriage lasting longer than ten years.
“Lifetime support” is especially rare in California. It is increasingly uncommon for a judge to order truly permanent alimony payments, even for marriages of long duration. Despite what “permanent” alimony might imply, the judge can always modify a support order. California law authorizes the court to terminate support in later proceedings based on changed circumstances. California Family Code Section 4336(a) states that when a marriage is “of long duration” (usually ten years, though this is not a steadfast rule), the court retains jurisdiction indefinitely after the divorce is finalized.