The late Robin Williams knew how expensive going through a divorce could be. He once joked that they were, “going to call it ‘all the money’ but they changed it to ‘alimony.’” For the higher-income earner in a marriage that is headed toward divorce, “all the money” can feel all too real. Indeed, one of the biggest question marks surrounding couples considering a divorce is how much support payments will be—and how long they will continue.
Called spousal support in California, alimony reflects the amount of money the higher income earner pays to the lower- (or non-) income earning spouse during and after the divorce. These payments are intended to maintain the status quo of the marriage during the divorce process and help the lower-income earning partner become self-sufficient, if possible.
Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule or formula that determine the appropriate amount of alimony, called “spousal support” in California, for every couple in the long-term. Fortunately, however, spousal support is something couples can agree to as part of the divorce process: both the amount and the duration. Knowing what spousal support is and what it is intended to do can help both you and your partner come to an agreement that does not feel like you are paying all the money to your partner. Let’s take a look at the definition of key terms around spousal support before examining typical spousal support arrangements—as well as your alternatives.
It Pays to Know Some Key Spousal Support Terms
Family law in California can be a complicated field, and its complexity can be compounded by the emotions and frustrations that come with ending a marriage or domestic partnership. One place to start taking control of your situation is by knowing some key terms. These are especially valuable if you think you will be able to negotiate a support order with your partner because these are the concepts that the courts consider when assessing the fairness of a spousal support order.
- Alimony. Alimony is another word for spousal support used primarily in the California tax code. However, in the court system, you will see “spousal support” used instead. Alimony referred to the payments made by the higher income earner to help the lower income earner enjoy the status quo of the marriage and try to achieve financial independence after a divorce.
- Pendente Lite (Temporary) Spousal Support. Leave it to the courts to use the Latin term for a common concept. Pendente lite translates to “during litigation” and refers to temporary arrangements while you and your partner are negotiating (or litigating) the terms of any long-term spousal support. The courts did make one thing easy: they have set guidelines for how temporary spousal support should be calculated in California. It is not quite as easy as punching in each party’s income, but it is not advanced calculus either.
- Long-Term Spousal Support. In California, spousal support is not set in stone because the court understands that need and ability may change from time to time. For example, the supported party may remarry or get a well-paying job and not need as much support from their ex. Similarly, if the paying spouse loses their job and is unable to support themselves, this might be grounds to change the support order. When the divorce judgment is entered, temporary spousal support turns into long-term or permanent spousal support.
Depending on your partner and your particular situation, you may not ever have a temporary (or pendente lite) spousal support order or agreement. If the divorce will be complicated or contentious, however, a temporary support order may be in both parties’ best interest. For the supported party, it represents an immediate boost of income to help with the day-to-day. For the supporting party, it can be an opportunity to carve out more accurately the marital standard of living.
Long-Term (But Not Necessarily Forever) Spousal Support
Speaking with a divorce attorney may help you better understand what a long-term spousal support arrangement should look like. To find the best divorce attorney for a temporary support order, listen carefully to the questions they ask. If possible, be prepared to answer the following questions to make the most of your time with your attorney:
- The employment history for both parties
- The education levels of both parties and whether any of this education was paid for during the marriage
- The presence of any health or non-health related limitations on you or your partner’s ability to support yourselves
- Whether either party put their career on hold to support the other’s career, professional development, or business development or to care for children
- Whether you or your partner plan to work after the divorce and what you expect your incomes to be
- Whether there was a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement
In general, spousal support in California can be a complex issue, guided by literally a dozen factors established by the family court system, including the relatively open-ended factor of “any other factors the court determines are just and equitable.”
A few principles guide most (but not all) spousal support arrangements in California:
- Short-term marriages (less than 10 years in duration): Spousal support is paid for ½ the duration of the marriage. So the higher wage earner in an 8-year marriage might expect to pay spousal support for 4 years.
- Long-term marriages (10 years or more in length): Spousal support may last longer, even indefinitely, if the lower-income earner is unable to enjoy the marital standard of living on their own income alone.
- Regardless of whether the marriage was short-term or long-term, the support order is not usually considered a “non-modifiable” order. Instead, a support order may be adjusted (modified) up or down depending on the earning ability of the paying spouse or the need of the receiving spouse.
- For the paying party, these circumstances might include a change in income (such as retirement) or in expenses.
- For the receiving party, this includes a change in income, expenses, or assets (such as an inheritance) or co-habitation with a non-marital partner.
- Spousal support obligations end upon either party’s death or the supported party’s remarriage. In other words, the estates are not owed spousal support or obligated to pay spousal support and paying parties are not expected to support their ex and their ex’s new partner.
Divorcing couples have additional options regarding spousal support arrangements, including the possibility of a lump-sum payment to “buy out” the spousal support obligation. This would limit the spousal support obligation to the time it takes to make this one-time payment.
Determining How Long You Have to Pay Alimony in California
As we have seen, spousal support arrangements are complicated and depend on a variety of factors. In addition, these agreements can be adjusted at any time by agreement of the parties or they can be litigated in situations where the circumstances (need or ability to pay) have changed but an agreement is hard to come by.
In addition, every individual circumstance is different, including the earning potential of the supported party and the ability of the paying party to support their ex. If you are wondering how long you have to pay alimony in California, you can run calculations for temporary spousal support on online calculators, but discussing your options with an attorney is often your best bet, especially for divorces or domestic partnerships with a lot at stake.
At Van Voorhis & Sosna, we have handled spousal support negotiation, mediation, and litigation for hundreds of clients. We know the complexities of divorce in the Bay Area because family law is our sole focus. We offer legal advice and representation based on integrity, trust, and understanding. Contact us today, or call 415-539-0422 to schedule a free legal consultation.
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