Alimony – called “spousal support” in California law – is a perennially contentious topic. In 2016, an attempt to abolish alimony in California was widely publicized, but that effort failed to gather enough support to put the alimony issue before the state’s voters.

Alimony is always controversial. Divorcing spouses who seek alimony insist that they need it, and the ex-spouses who are ordered to pay alimony almost always think that they should pay less – or nothing at all. The dedicated help of a Cerrito’s divorce attorney will be needed if you want to ensure that your spousal support settlement is just and adequate.

WHEN WILL A DIVORCE COURT MAKE A DECISION REGARDING ALIMONY?

When spouses can agree about alimony – both temporary and what is called “permanent” spousal support – they can save a great deal of time, money, and aggravation. If no agreement is possible, and the two sides battle it out, a judge will make the final decisions about alimony.

California divorce courts award spousal support payments to assist an unemployed or low-earning ex-spouse, based on each ex-partner’s current financial situation.

How does alimony work in California? How do the courts decide the amount of an alimony payment? And what if that amount isn’t fair? If you’ll keep reading, those questions will be answered, and you will learn more about your rights as a payer – or as a recipient – of alimony.

WHAT IS “TEMPORARY” SPOUSAL SUPPORT?

Of course, every divorce is different, but some general rules regarding alimony apply to everyone who divorces in California. The first thing that divorcing couples should know about alimony in California is the difference between temporary and “permanent” spousal support.

Temporary spousal support is the alimony provided while the divorce is pending and until it is finalized. One partner may require temporary support while the divorce is proceeding, so the court may award that temporary support at the start of the process.

WHEN SHOULD TEMPORARY SPOUSAL SUPPORT BE REQUESTED?

A divorce in California begins when one partner files a petition for divorce. That petition is then served to the other partner. The request for temporary spousal support may be filed at the same time as the divorce petition or at any later time during the divorce proceeding.

Temporary spousal support is short-term – it lasts only until the divorce is finalized – so a court seldom conducts a comprehensive evaluation of the couple’s finances before granting a request for temporary spousal support.

Instead, California courts typically use a fixed formula to determine the temporary support amount. Temporary support helps divorcing spouses meet financial obligations during the divorce and ensures that a spouse does not damage his or her credit rating due to the divorce.

HOW DOES “PERMANENT” SPOUSAL SUPPORT WORK?

A “permanent” order for spousal support can be the result of an agreement between the spouses or the result of a divorce trial. An alimony agreement between the spouses is called a “stipulated” judgment.

You may be asking, “Does ‘permanent’ spousal support really last for a lifetime?” Almost never. When a marriage in California has endured for less than ten years, alimony is usually short-term, and the court orders payments to continue for half the length of the marriage.

When a marriage in California has endured for longer than ten years, the alimony/spousal support payments are called “permanent,” but that does not mean that a divorced spouse will pay or receive alimony for life. That almost never happens.

CAN A “PERMANENT” SPOUSAL SUPPORT ORDER BE MODIFIED?

When either ex-spouse’s life situation changes in the years after a divorce, either may seek a modification of the spousal support order, including a modification that terminates the payments.

What the law in California says is that even after a marriage “of long duration,” there is nothing that “limits the court’s discretion to terminate spousal support in later proceedings on a showing of changed circumstances.”

In other words, the law does not say that a divorce after ten or more years of marriage automatically means alimony for life. The courts have the power to modify and terminate spousal support orders at any time.

WHEN SHOULD A MODIFICATION OF SPOUSAL SUPPORT BE REQUESTED?

If a spouse did not work during the marriage in order to be a homemaker and/or raise children, alimony will probably be ordered, but if the partner receiving payments doesn’t eventually make reasonable efforts to be self-supporting, a modification of the alimony order should be requested.

When divorcing spouses can’t agree about long-term alimony payments, their dispute will go to a judge who determines the alimony amount and decides for how long it must be paid.

If you seek permanent alimony, both partners’ finances must be comprehensively reviewed, and if the divorcing spouses cannot reach an agreement, the process can be lengthy and exasperating.

WHAT IS YOUR ATTORNEY’S ROLE?

When a divorce is finalized and any dispute regarding alimony has been resolved, if there is any significant change in the circumstances of either ex-partner, the order for spousal support may need modification.

An ex who pays spousal support and seeks to lower the payment figure must show a change in his or her personal circumstances that warrants the modification. An ex who seeks more spousal support must also show a change in personal circumstances that warrants a modification.

If it isn’t contested, a spousal support modification can usually be accomplished quickly, but if the other ex-spouse disputes the need for a modification, the matter may take some weeks to resolve.

Ex-spouses who make alimony payments may ask to have those payments terminated after a few years, and they are frequently successful. When alimony is no longer proper or necessary, the paying ex-spouse should request a termination order.

WHAT IF YOU CANNOT MAKE COURT-ORDERED ALIMONY PAYMENTS?

What an ex-spouse who is making alimony payments cannot do is simply to stop making spousal support payments – even if you are out of work or you can’t return to work because of illness or injury. You must request a modification of the court’s alimony order with your attorney’s help.

Any failure to make the spousal support payments ordered by the court can trigger serious legal penalties.

Finally, if you are now receiving or paying spousal support, have a Long Beach divorce attorney examine the spousal support order to ensure that it’s fair and suitable to your situation. In any alimony or divorce-related dispute, a good divorce attorney’s help is your right.