Spousal Support: Factors That Affect Your Court-Ordered Payment

When couples split up, a question often pondered by both husbands and wives is, how can I continue to afford my lifestyle? That is especially true in families where one spouse has given up a career to care for the children and run the household. In California, when the court is asked to determine support, the court will order the higher-earning spouse to pay the lesser-earning spouse monthly spousal support (historically called alimony).

The first question is: how much money will the court order? And will that amount of money change over time, and for how long will the spousal support order last? The purpose of spousal support while the parties are going through the divorce is to allow the supported spouse to maintain the status quo, but at the end of the proceeding, the court makes a different order. At that time, the court may order one party to pay for the support of the other party in an amount, for some time, that the court determines is “just and reasonable,” taking into consideration a whole host of circumstances outlined in the Family Code.

Those factors to be considered include, among them, the extent to which the earning capacity of each party is sufficient to maintain the marital standard of living. How much can the payor pay and still have money left to pay for their living expenses? Also relevant are the marketable skills of the supported party, the job market for those skills, and the time and costs required for the helped party to acquire the appropriate education or training to develop those skills. The sponsored party is expected to return to work, so the court may consider the need for retraining or education to acquire other more marketable skills or employment. Even though mom, for example, gave up her career to have children, what would be required to re-enter the workforce? Would she need to go back to school?

The Role of Earning Capacity in Determining Alimony

The court should also consider the extent to which the supported party’s present or future earning capacity is impaired by periods of unemployment incurred during the marriage to permit the sponsored party to devote time to domestic duties. The court may consider if the supported party contributed to the support payor’s education, training, or career attainment. For example, if a wife gave up her promising career in the entertainment business to support her husband in attaining his professional goals, that is supposed to count for something. Of course, the real question is, after the court has considered all the relevant factors, how does it actually arrive at a monthly dollar amount? The answer to that question in California is typically by using a computer software program Dissomaster that was originally devised to calculate just child support (which is different from and in addition to spousal support). The court inputs certain information, including, for example, the income of each party (both from earnings as well as investment), the tax filing status of the parties, the amount each party pays for health insurance, if either party owns a home, the mortgage interest and property tax paid relating to same, and the percent of time each parent has custody of the children if relevant. The Dissomaster then magically calculates a dollar amount for child and spousal support.

The court is required to order the Dissomaster’s guideline for child support if relevant (i.e., if there are minor children). Still, as to spousal, the court may rely on that dollar amount only when ordering temporary spousal support during the divorce proceeding, which can sometimes last for years.

However, the court cannot rely on that computer formula when arriving at the spousal support amount in the final judgment at the end of the divorce process. Then, a judge is supposed to consider all the relevant factors outlined in the Family Code section and any other factors the court determines are just and equitable. Usually, the court’s final spousal support orders are slightly less than the amount ordered at the temporary stage. And, of course, the next question is, how long will the spousal support last? That typically depends upon the length of the marriage. If the duration of the marriage is less than ten years, the rule of thumb is to expect spousal support to be ordered for half the length of the marriage. If the marriage lasts longer than ten years, the duration can be difficult to predict. Presumably, the family court will not treat a 34-year marriage the same as a 12-year marriage. Another factor that can play into the decision is the age and health of the parties. A 76-year-old man or woman married for 40 years will not be treated like a 43-year-old married for 15 years. Notably, however, income earners are not required to work forever, and when they retire, they are entitled to seek to modify or even terminate their support obligation.

Legal Consultation: Navigating Complex Divorce Laws

Because of the complexity of this area of the law, it is important to consult competent family law counsel. If you are considering divorce and have, for example, given up your career to focus on caring for the family and will most certainly need financial assistance from your spouse, the process can be unpredictable. Similarly, if you are a higher-earning spouse, you too should understand how a court could view your obligations and how to limit them potentially. Moreover, the timing of when you get divorced matters, as after nine years of marriage, 14 years of marriage, or 39 years of marriage. The length of the marriage and even the timing and circumstances of separation can impact the duration of the spousal support order. Parties need to obtain the advice of experienced legal counsel before deciding to end their marriage since that decision will have not just emotional trauma but also long-lasting financial consequences on you and your family.