Spousal Support vs. Alimony: What Is the Difference? An Attorney Answers

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If you are in the process of going through a divorce, you probably have a million questions running through your head. Some of these are practical, like who will keep the dining room set and where you filed all those important papers so long ago. Others are emotional, like how best to tell your friends, family, and co-workers and if this should have happened sooner or not at all. And some are financial, like whether you will be paying or receiving some money to help your partner or yourself live like you used to. 

One question you should not have to puzzle for long is what to call it: spousal support vs. alimony. Simply put: spousal support is the California legal system’s term for alimony. But how did we get here, and what does it really mean for you? Let’s take a look at its history, how it works in California, and what else you may need to know during this complicated time of life.

A Quick History of Spousal Support

For those students of Latin, alimony comes from the word alere, which means to nourish. And that is pretty appropriate, given that this system of support was originally meant to provide for a spouse after a separation or divorce: to keep food on the table when the household’s breadwinner left the home. Today, alimony and spousal support is often used interchangeably to refer to our modern payment system where an ex-spouse (or soon-to-be ex-spouse) provides regular payments to their previous partner. For example, the California tax code still refers to alimony while the family court system has adopted spousal support. 

In the legal world, you will primarily hear us use the word spousal support—it is in line with the legal code and it is gender neutral, which is appropriate since the higher-income-earner, regardless of gender, typically pays spousal support. Think of spousal support as the mechanism to limit economic disparity between the parties to a divorce. It is meant to provide predictable income to the unemployed or lower-wage-earning partner and help maintain the status quo of the marriage when the divorce is finalized. Typically, spousal support refers to a monthly amount paid for a certain amount of time, but other options, including a lump-sum buyout, exist.

As we will see, in California, spousal support can be temporary or permanent (though permanent does not necessarily mean forever).

How it Works in California

The law around divorce in California has very clear guidelines around what it calls “temporary” spousal support. This means the support order that a court will enforce while the divorcing parties determine—by agreement or litigation—what a fair permanent support order would look like. By contrast, permanent (or long-term) spousal support is a bit less straight-forward and hinges on multiple factors, none of which are clear-cut. If you are in a situation where you may pay or receive spousal support in California, you will want to consider your options carefully.

Many factors inform how long support orders (or agreements) last and the monthly amount. For permanent support orders, the Family Code (the law that controls divorce in California) lists dozens of factors, including seeking what is “just and equitable”—that means it can seem open to a pretty broad interpretation. As we mentioned, permanent does not necessarily mean forever—it typically means until circumstances change: for example, if the receiving party does not need support anymore, the paying party cannot afford to support the other, or the agreed-upon timeframe expires. 

Recently, however, spousal support got more complicated. It used to be that, on a federal level, spousal support was tax-deductible by the paying spouse and taxable to the receiving spouse. However, after a portion of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 went into effect in 2019, the deduction for spousal support payments went away at the federal level (it is still in effect at the state level, so long as a few criteria are met) and payments are no longer taxable to the receiving partner.

Please note: Tax laws change frequently, and every tax situation is unique. Please consult with a tax or legal professional before taking any action that may impact your filing status.

Simply put: spousal support in California is governed by both tax and legal codes that may change, so be sure to consult an expert before making big financial decisions.

What Else You Need to Know

If you are thinking about finding a good divorce attorney to help you navigate these questions, do your homework first. Find an attorney who will offer a consultation, and come prepared with information about your situation. 

Although alimony and spousal support refer to the same concept, it is important to know that not all exchanges of money or property during a divorce are considered alimony or spousal support (child support, for example). You may also want to be familiar with a few key terms to help you navigate the conversation and its associated paperwork:

  • Pendente lite ~ Latin for “during litigation.” This refers to temporary spousal support—those short-term payment arrangements while the parties settle on a long-term support order. 
  • Child support ~ Child support are those monthly payments meant to ensure children of divorce have their needs met and enjoy relatively economically similar experiences no matter which parent they are with. Child support orders are established before (or concurrent with) spousal support orders. Child support is not the same as spousal support.
  • QDRO ~ Pronounced “quadro,” QDRO stands for “Qualified Domestic Relations Order.” This mouthful of a name refers to the California court order that you may need in order to divide a retirement plan that is otherwise indivisible or untouchable. Depending on the terms of your divorce or your retirement plans, you may not need a QDRO. The division of retirement account assets is typically not the same as spousal support.
  • Spousal support stipulation ~ “Stipulation” is the legal system’s word for “agreement.” A spousal support stipulation and order is the formal name of paperwork showing an agreement that the court can enforce.
  • Termination of spousal support ~ Termination of spousal support refers to the end of a support order (or stipulation). It means that either the clock has run out on a support order or the circumstances of either or both parties have changed such that a support order is no longer appropriate. The court typically retains jurisdiction (or authority) over the issue, which means if circumstances change again, a support order could potentially be re-issued. 
  • Termination of jurisdiction ~ This refers to the court’s authority. When jurisdiction is terminated, the court no longer has say over any spousal support order. 

You do not necessarily need to memorize these terms, but it does help to speak the lingua franca as you are going through a divorce. If you have any questions, qualified professionals can help you navigate these complex questions and give you the peace of mind—and support—you deserve.

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.

The content provided on this website is for informational purposes only and does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice. Information on this website may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information, and you should contact an attorney to obtain advice regarding your particular issues or problems. Use of and access to this website do not create an attorney-client relationship between Van Voorhis & Sosna and the reader. 

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