Financial issues are often the biggest points of contention in a divorce, especially when one spouse brought home most of the income. Spousal support, also known as alimony, is a court-ordered payment one spouse makes to the other following a divorce.
Typically, the higher-earning spouse pays the other to help maintain a similar marital standard of living after the legal split. In California, spousal support is calculated based on several factors, including each spouse’s income and how long they were married. Let’s dig into how spousal support works and the calculation process used in California courts.
Spousal Support vs. Alimony
Some attorneys use the terms “spousal support” and “alimony” interchangeably because they essentially mean the same thing. However, the term “alimony” is somewhat antiquated as it’s often used to describe payments men would make to their ex-wives. On the other hand, spousal support is used more often in courtrooms and doesn’t carry the same gender stigma as the word alimony.
Why Does Spousal Support Exist?
The overarching reason spousal support exists is to prevent the post-divorce economic hardship of the lower-earning spouse. Here are a few examples that can be grounds for awarding spousal support in a divorce:
- One spouse earned significantly more than the other during the marriage.
- The lesser earning spouse may have been out of the workforce to care for the home and family over an extended period.
- The lesser earning spouse may lack the skills and experience needed to reenter the workforce and support themselves and needs time to get back on their feet.
How Does Spousal Support Work?
There are five main types of spousal support in California, but two are most prevalent: temporary and permanent. Temporary spousal support provides financial assistance during the divorce process, while permanent spousal support is paid after the divorce is finalized.
Here’s a complete list of spousal support types:
- Temporary Spousal Support: payment from one spouse to another while legally separated but not divorced.
- Rehabilitative Spousal Support: Paid to a spouse until they can support themselves.
- Permanent Spousal Support: This will continue until the payee spouse’s death or remarriage
- Reimbursement Spousal Support: This usually happens if one spouse needs to go to a training program or something similar. The paying spouse may have to pay for tuition and other related costs.
- Lump-sum Spousal Support: In the event that spousal support may be paid for a finite period of time (ie. in a short-term marriage), the parties may agree to buy-out spousal support in a lump sum payment. This is a non-modifiable payment, so it’s important to weigh out all factors before agreeing to a lump sum.
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How is Spousal Support Calculated?
While the divorce process is pending, the Court may use the Dissomaster program to calculate temporary support. This program takes many factors into consideration, including, all sources of both parties’ respective incomes, tax benefits, and child support received.
On the other hand, permanent spousal support awards can vary greatly. California courts consider a range of variables when determining the length and amount of permanent spousal support, including:
- Length of marriage
- Each spouse’s income, assets, and debts
- Financial state of each spouse after property is divided up
- Standard of living while married
- The supported spouse’s ability to earn and support themselves
- Time and costs the supported spouse spent to be a homemaker or raise children
- Age and health of both spouses
- Any other criteria that the judge deems as relevant and important
If your ex-spouse fails to make payments, you can enforce the order through the court system.
The first step is usually to ask the Court to determine the total amount of back spousal support that is owed to you, also known as arrearages. Once the Court has determined the arrearages, you can work with an attorney to collect the amount owed to you through a Writ of Execution. With the Writ, you can withdraw the amount owed directly from the payor’s financial accounts, if you have that information.
Another enforcement proceeding is a contempt of court action. One of the factors to be successful with a contempt action is that you’ll need to prove your ex-spouse had the ability to make payments when they were due. However, this can prove to be difficult sometimes. If you’re successful, the court may order your ex-spouse to pay a fine, pay the outstanding amount, go to jail, or all of the above.
Enforcing spousal support payments through a contempt action can be a long and difficult process. You should consider hiring an experienced family law attorney to help you. Though we don’t specialize in contempt cases, contact us and we can refer you to an attorney in our trusted network.
Spousal Support Best Practices
If you’re not married yet, you can add clauses into your prenuptial agreement that define how long and how much. It’s important to note, however, that the conscionability of any spousal support provisions in any marital agreement is measured at the time of enforcement. So, it is vital to work with an experienced family law attorney before you decide to include any spousal support provisions in your agreement.
Whether it’s a prenup or postnup, both tools allow you to take matters into your own hands ahead of time. Otherwise, you’ll rely on the judge to make decisions for you.
Plus, the discussions around prenups and postnups allow you and your spouse to talk through tough topics and practice open and honest communication around money. Having these discussions can empower you to continue on a successful marriage or, at the very least, create a roadmap to thrive in life after divorce.
Feel free to reach out if you need legal guidance on your prenup or postnup or assistance with spousal support enforcement — I’m here to help.