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Everything You Need To Know About Alimony In California

Nov 2, 2022 | Family

Divorce can be a highly contentious and confusing process. There are many aspects of your life that will be affected, from your relationships with your extended family and friends to your parental relationship with your kids to your finances. Finances can be particularly stressful to navigate. If you’re getting divorced, you might wonder if you will owe or qualify to receive alimony after your split becomes legal. Alimony (which is also known as spousal support or spousal maintenance), only applies in certain circumstances of divorce, however. Here’s what you need to know about alimony if you dissolve your marriage in the state of California! 

What Is Alimony?

Alimony refers to court-ordered payments one spouse pays the other after their divorce is filed. 

It is important to note that alimony won’t be ordered in every divorce! It’s not mandatory. However, if one spouse earns significantly more than the other, the court may require alimony to be paid in order to ensure fairness. 

Depending on where the couple is in the divorce process, alimony may be paid temporarily or for a long term. Temporary spousal support may go into effect while the divorce is still pending in court. This type of alimony maintains the living conditions and standards of living for both spouses until the divorce is final and the couple’s property and assets are divided.

Once the divorce is legally finalized, then long-term or “post-divorce judgment” alimony may replace temporary spousal support. Family court judges review various factors, such as the duration of the marriage and the standard of living enjoyed during that time, to determine how much spousal support a spouse should receive and for how long. Post-judgement spousal support ensures that each spouse has sufficient income to meet their basic needs and maintain their lifestyle post-divorce. 

However, California courts desire that both spouses work towards becoming self-supporting within a reasonable time period after their split. In this state, alimony isn’t meant to last forever. Instead, it’s simply designed to bridge the gap between the divorce and the receiving spouse supporting themselves financially.

How Long You Were Married Will Affect How Much Alimony Is Required

California family judges rarely award spousal support when a couple has only been together for a few months or years. However, spousal support is frequently a part of the divorce ruling when a marriage ends after many years or even decades (and when the spouses have unequal earning/resources). How long a spouse must pay or the other spouse can receive spousal support depends on several factors, including how long the marriage lasted. Other factors may include:

  • the duration of the marriage
  • the amount of income each spouse receives
  • the earning potential of each spouse
  • each spouse’s expenses
  • if children are living at home
  • the quality of life enjoyed during the marriage
  • the physical or mental disabilities of either spouse 
  • the age and health of each spouse
  • And more. 

In many California counties, courts use a formula to calculate the amount of temporary or long-term spousal support (though every individual case is unique and a judge can decide not to use this formula or to modify it). The formula is 40% of the high earner’s net monthly income minus 50% of the low earner’s net monthly income. An example provided by Nolo goes like this:

For example, if Spouse A earns $6,000 a month and Spouse B earns $3,000 a month, temporary spousal support would be $900 a month (40% of $6,000 = $2,400; 50% of $3,000 = $1,500; $2,400 − $1,500 = $900).

How Is Alimony Determined If Incomes Are Variable?

Suppose the spouse who will be paying alimony earns a variable income. In that case, the family courts have several options for treating that income when it comes to paying alimony. California law and divorce judges realize that variable income is common in today’s society, and it’s crucial to understand how to fairly navigate these income scenarios, especially when alimony is at stake.  

Typical work situations where a person has variable income include:

  • sales commissions – For example, spouses who sell real estate or participate in other commission-based sales careers have an extremely variable income.
  • bonuses – Discretionary bonuses provided by an employer are often variable. Some years or quarters, employees may receive nothing; other times, they may receive thousands of dollars.
  • stock and stock options – Employer-provided stock, stock options, and restricted stock units are often variable and rely on performance. For support calculation purposes, stock benefits are classified as income.

With alimony and variable income, judges typically have two options:

  • Average out the variable income the spousal support payer receives over a certain period of time, such as over a year or several years, to determine how much they should pay the other spouse.  
  • Adopt what is known as the Smith Ostler approach, requiring the spousal support payor to report their variable income to the other spouse and then pay them a certain percentage of the gross amount of that income.

Can Alimony Be Modified?

Either spouse has the right to request the court to modify the order for spousal support. Under California law, family court laws allow alimony modifications or changes under some circumstances. The most common reasons for modifications include the following:

  • The spouse paying support suffers a substantial partial or permanent reduction in income.
  • The spouse receiving support no longer requires it.
  • The spouse receiving support gets remarried.
  • The spouse paying support is incarcerated.
  • The spouse receiving support fails to make a good-faith effort to become self-supporting.
  • Either spouse misrepresented assets or income that will impact the spousal support order.

The spouse requesting the change to spousal support will need to file the request with the court and be prepared to show proof of the circumstances necessitating the changes. When you work with an experienced California divorce attorney, they can help you determine if a change is necessary and what you will need to establish that with the court. 

Do You Have Questions About California Alimony Laws? Call Equal Justice Law Group Today!

You’re not alone if you have questions about spousal support in California. California’s family and divorce laws, including those about alimony, can be confusing and complex. You need to understand what your financial picture is moving forward so you can make the most strategic decisions and plan ahead! The experienced divorce lawyers at the Equal Justice Law Group can explain the laws and their implications in your divorce and advise you on the right course of action. Call our firm today to schedule a consultation and get the legal representation you deserve!

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