If you are in the process of getting a divorce or wondering what the outcomes of one may be, you are probably thinking about what your alimony payments (called spousal support in California) might look like. Typically, as you know, the higher wage earner pays regular amounts to their spouse while the lower-wage earner collects these payments.
What you might not know is how many factors influence spousal support in California. The law around alimony in California is informed by dozens of factors, including the length of the marriage and your relative incomes as well as “any other factors the court determines are just and equitable.” That can feel like a big question mark.
If you end up meeting with a divorce attorney to understand your options, good lawyers will ask for many facts about your marriage. These will include your date of marriage, the date you separated or plan to separate (and whether this could be disputed), plus information about you and your partner’s finances. Understanding these central pieces of information will help establish whether the marriage was short- or long-term and set the stage for the terms of any potential spousal support agreement.
It can get complicated, but a good place to start is by understanding four key elements: the length of the marriage, the possibility of ongoing or lump sum spousal support, any potential tax implications, and the requirement that the supported party make reasonable efforts to become self-supporting, each of which we discuss in more detail below.
How the Length of Your Marriage Impacts Spousal Support
If you know someone who has gone through a divorce, then you are probably familiar with a few sets of related terms, like alimony, temporary or pendente lite spousal support, and long-term spousal support. Getting these definitions straight is key to understanding how the length of your marriage impacts a potential spousal support order, if it is done through the courts. However, keep in mind that couples may agree to any spousal support arrangement that works for them and their situation.
- Pendente Lite (Temporary) Spousal Support. Pendente lite is Latin for “during litigation” and simply means the temporary arrangement before the divorcing couple has established to a long-term support arrangement. Temporary spousal support is intended to help both parties maintain the status quo or the lifestyle of their marriage and can be calculated based on a set of guidelines.
- Long-Term Spousal Support. In California, the court recognizes that circumstances may change and so orders have to change. For example, losing their job may impact the higher wage earner’s ability to support their ex or the lower wage earner may get a comparable-paying job and no longer need the financial assistance. The supported party may remarry or inherit a significant sum that means they no longer require support to enjoy a comparable quality of life. Therefore, long-term or permanent spousal support is the term for a support order agreed to by the parties or ordered by the court as part of the final resolution of the divorce.
- Alimony. Alimony means the same thing as spousal support but reflects a term no longer used in California family law courts (you will still see it in the California tax code, however). Just like temporary and long-term spousal support, alimony meant 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.
In California, spousal support arrangements often reflect the complicated realities of the divorcing couple as well as the length of the marriage. One rule of thumb is that spousal support lasts for half the length of a marriage that was less than 10 years long. But for longer marriages, the court typically does not put a limit on the support order. Instead, at some point the higher income earner will need to show that the lower income earner does not need the financial support, sometimes through agreement of the parties and often through litigation.
Just as there is no hard and fast rule for how long spousal support lasts, so too there is no calculator for establishing an appropriate amount for long-term spousal support. And the length of the marriage is just one factor to consider.
Choosing Between Periodic Payments or Lump Sum Buyout
As we have seen, the duration for a spousal support arrangement is never cut and dried. However, some partners can decide between themselves to make a support order last just as long as it takes to arrange a lump-sum payment. If left to the courts, the arrangement will always be a periodic payment (typically monthly). However, individuals are free to reach a resolution that works best for themselves and their situation. These arrangements can range from a complete waiver of support to a one-time, lump sum payment (or buyout).
The terms of a buyout reflect what is most advantageous to the parties. One option is to divide the community property unevenly to make up for the spousal support that would have otherwise been paid. For example, one can take the house or a larger portion of shared bank accounts or other assets. Another option is to make a separate, one-time payment for the present value of what the long-term spousal support payments would be.
Understanding Tax Implications of Alimony in California
On a federal level, the tax implications of spousal support was recently made more complicated by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 that took effect as of 2018. Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, spousal support payments made on a period basis were tax-deductible by the partner making the payments (and of course taxable to the partner receiving them). This meant divorcing parties had a bit of negotiating power to craft spousal support agreements that took taxes into account. Now, however, that deduction for spousal support payments is gone at the federal level.
For state taxes in California, it is important to note that the paying party can still deduct spousal support payments (so long as the parties are not filing jointly) but recipients must report spousal support payments as taxable income on their state taxes. Several rules govern whether payments qualify as deductible.
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.
Making Reasonable Efforts to Become Self-Supporting
Remember that the purpose of spousal support is to help both parties maintain the status quo or the lifestyle of their marriage. In shorter marriages (less than 10 years), the supported party is usually expected to get back on their feet in about half the time they were married. For longer marriages, where the parties may be older and their earning potential lower, the time the lower- or non-income earner may require support for much longer.
In either case, California law requires the partner receiving support to make a good faith effort to support his or herself. However, the court recognizes that lack of education, training, and experience as well as other responsibilities or personal limitations may impact an individual’s ability to find work.
Nonetheless, if the spouse receiving support cannot work, he or she may have to provide evidence, such as a vocational evaluation, of their inability to work or find appropriate work. You may have heard of a Gavron warning in the context of spousal support. A Gavron warning is the court’s official declaration to the recipient spouse to make good faith efforts to be self-supporting. Failure to do so may result in the termination of a spousal support order.
Before You File—Or Respond
Clearly, there is a lot at stake any time a couple finds themselves considering a divorce. The date of separation, the marital standard of living, and the earning potential of each partner are crucial questions to examine as early as possible to establish temporary and long-term spousal support arrangements that work best for you. Unfortunately, these are often sidelined in the wake of more emotional questions related to child custody and visitation arrangements or the division of community property.
Do not let yourself get overwhelmed by the many issues to be addressed. Whether you will be filing paperwork first or will be responding to your partner’s paperwork, you deserve a full and comprehensive grasp of what is at stake.
At Van Voorhis & Sosna, we know the complexities of spousal support in California because family law is our sole focus. We offer legal advice and representation based on integrity, trust, and understanding. Contact us today, or call 415.274.2530 to schedule a free legal consultation.
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