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Alimony In California: A Guide

Have questions about how alimony works in California? We explain the types of alimony in California, how it is calculated, and more in this guide.

evident Editorial Team
January 25, 2024
California, Hollywood sign

If you're going through a divorce, you might be wondering, "How does alimony work in California?"

The CA divorce process can be complicated, and trying to navigate California alimony rules can add to the complexity.

In this article, we'll explain the basics of alimony in California and answer key questions, including how alimony is calculated in California, how long alimony lasts, and whether alimony is taxable in California.

So, how does alimony work in California? Let's break it down, beginning with a word on terminology.

Key Takeaways

Alimony vs Spousal Support in California

Before diving into the details, it's worth pausing on a couple of threshold issues: a general definition of alimony and clarification on what alimony is called in California.

So, what is alimony? Alimony refers to financial payments made by one spouse to support the other, typically in connection with a divorce or legal separation. Laws on alimony vary from state to state, including regarding how alimony is calculated and even what it is called.

Relatedly, alimony is technically called spousal support in the relevant California laws. The two terms are often used interchangeably, though.

Types of Alimony in California

California law provides for two main types of alimony. The two types of California alimony are:

  • Temporary Spousal Support: Temporary alimony, or spousal support, is financial assistance provided during the divorce process. Its purpose is to maintain the status quo and ensure that both parties have the necessary financial means until a final settlement is reached.
  • Long-Term Spousal Support: Long-term or permanent spousal support is the term for alimony awarded at the conclusion of a divorce process or family law case. It is usually not truly permanent, and the judge will consider factors such as the receiving spouse's needs and the paying spouse's ability to pay when determining the duration of support.

Understanding the distinction between these types of alimony is crucial for individuals involved in divorce proceedings in California.

Lump-Sum Alimony vs Periodic Payments

dollar, money, alimony

In addition to these two general types of California spousal support, there are two main ways a spousal support order could be structured: periodic payments or a lump-sum payment.

  • Periodic Payments: This structure is most common and requires one spouse to pay spousal support on a monthly basis (or some other regular interval).
  • Lump-Sum Alimony: Instead of periodic payments, lump-sum alimony involves a one-time payment, providing a clean break between the divorcing parties.

Lump-sum payments are often difficult to manage, given the parties are already navigating the financial challenges that accompany a California divorce, which is part of why periodic payments are more common.

How is Alimony Calculated in California?

How alimony is calculated in California depends on the type of alimony at issue, as temporary spousal support is calculated differently from long-term spousal support.

How is temporary spousal support calculated in CA?

When considering temporary spousal support, courts aim to allow each spouse to maintain the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, understanding that this is not always possible to perfectly replicate.

There is no hard and fast statewide alimony formula, but many counties use a formula to guide their calculation of temporary support. One common formula is to subtract 50% of the net monthly income of the lower-earning spouse from 40% of the net monthly income of the higher-earning spouse.

But again, this is just a guideline, and judges still have discretion when establishing a temporary spousal support order.

How is long-term spousal support calculated in CA?

Calculating long-term alimony in California involves a thorough assessment of various factors, with the primary goal of achieving a fair and reasonable outcome for both parties. Judges have broad discretion to determine the amount and duration of any spousal support orders. (Contrast this with child support, where judges must follow a rigid formula).

Under California law, judges must consider a list of factors, including:

  • Earning Capacity:  The court examines each spouse's earning capacity, taking into account their education, skills, and employment history. If one spouse has a significantly higher earning capacity, they may be required to provide financial support to the other.
  • Standard of Living During Marriage:  The lifestyle that both spouses enjoyed during the marriage is a critical factor. The court aims to maintain a similar standard of living for the supported spouse, considering factors such as housing, education, and overall quality of life.
  • Duration of the Marriage:  Another key consideration is the length of the marriage. Short-term marriages may result in a shorter duration of alimony, while long-term marriages may involve more extended or even permanent support.
  • Contributions to the Marriage:  The court evaluates each spouse's contributions to the marriage, both financially and non-financially. This includes factors such as homemaking and childcare to support the other spouse's education or career.
  • Health and Age:  The physical and emotional health of each spouse, as well as each spouse's age, are considered. Health issues or advanced age may impact one spouse's ability to become self-supporting.
  • Assets and Debts:  The court reviews the distribution of assets and debts during the divorce process. This assessment helps determine the financial situation of each spouse and their ability to meet their needs.

Additionally, as covered more below, California's alimony law instructs judges to consider the "goal that the supported party shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time."

Finally, the court must also consider "any other factors the court determines are just and equitable," underscoring the broad discretion that judges have when calculating spousal support in California.

Alimony decisions are thus highly individualized, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The court exercises discretion, carefully weighing these factors when considering how much spousal support to award and for how long.

How Long Does Alimony Last in California?

pocket watch, time, sand

How long alimony lasts in California depends first and foremost on the type of alimony. Remember, temporary spousal support ends when the family law case concludes, at which point any long-term spousal support begins.

Meanwhile, the duration of long-term spousal support in California varies based on the specific circumstances of each case. Unlike some states with rigid formulas, California provides the court with discretion in determining the length of spousal support.

In the list of factors a judge must consider, California law does establish a goal that "the supported party shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time." The law also provides that "a reasonable period of time" should typically mean about half the length of the marriage, except for "a marriage of long duration" which California law defines as ten years or more.

Thus, for marriages of less than ten years, California alimony law is intended to guide spousal support orders with the goal that the supported spouse becomes self-supporting after half the length of the marriage.

But again, California laws place the discretion with the judge who will consider factors such as the length of the marriage, the supported spouse's ability to become financially independent, and the overall financial situation of both parties when determining the length of an alimony award.

Indefinite Jurisdiction Over Long Marriages

How long does spousal support last for long marriages? California law provides that the court retains "indefinite jurisdiction" following proceedings for divorce or legal separation in lengthy marriages, except where a court order terminates spousal support or there is a contrary written agreement between the parties.

Indefinite jurisdiction, though, does not necessarily mean permanent alimony. It simply means that the judge retains the authority to maintain, adjust, or reinstate the amount of alimony.

It is also possible that a judge could decide a marriage of less than ten years qualifies for indefinite jurisdiction, but as with all alimony considerations, it depends on the particular circumstances involved.

When Does Alimony End in California?

The termination of California alimony can occur under specific circumstances. Some common events that may lead to the end of alimony include:

  • Death of Either Spouse: Alimony obligations end upon the death of either the paying or receiving spouse.
  • Remarriage of the Supported Spouse: If the supported spouse remarries, alimony obligations end.
  • Cohabitation: In some cases, alimony may be modified or terminated if the supported spouse cohabitates with another person in a manner that significantly reduces their financial needs.
  • Court Order or Agreement: Alimony may also end based on a court order specifying the duration of support or through an agreement between the divorcing parties.

When alimony ends in California can depend on the terms set during the divorce proceedings as well as the unique circumstances of each case.

How is Alimony Paid in California?

In terms of the mechanics of how spousal support is paid and received, the party who pays spousal support often has the money taken directly from their paychecks. This is called "earnings assignment" or "income withholding." In this setup, their employer is the one to actually pay support to the other spouse.

If there is also a child support order in effect, the employer pays spousal support to the State Disbursement Unit which transmits the money to the supported spouse.

Note that unpaid spousal support in California accrues interest at a rate of 10% per year.

Modifying Alimony in California

In California, the court recognizes that circumstances may change after a divorce, impacting the financial situations of either the supporting or supported spouse. It is, therefore, possible to modify alimony under certain circumstances.

Grounds for Modification of Alimony

To modify spousal support in California, there typically needs to be a substantial change in circumstances or some other impetus for modifying the original alimony award. Such grounds could include:

  • Change in Financial Situation: If there is a substantial change in either spouse's financial situation, such as a significant increase or decrease in income, the court may consider modifying alimony. This could be due to factors like job loss, a salary increase, or retirement.
  • Change in Needs of the Supported Spouse: If the supported spouse's financial needs change, whether due to health issues, changes in living expenses, or other factors, the court may consider modifying alimony to ensure that the supported spouse's needs are adequately addressed.

The key point is that circumstances typically need to have changed such that the original spousal support order is no longer appropriate in order for a judge to modify the arrangement.

Legal Process for Modifying Alimony In California

To modify California spousal support, the party seeking the modification must file a request with the court. It's essential to provide evidence supporting the need for the modification, such as financial documents, to demonstrate the change in circumstances.

In spousal support modification proceedings, both parties will have the opportunity to present their case and the court will modify the alimony award, or not, based on the merits of the arguments presented.

Negotiating Modifications

Alternatively, parties can mutually agree to modify alimony through negotiation or mediation. If both spouses agree on the need for a modification, they can submit their agreement to the court for its approval.

Understanding the grounds and legal process for modifying alimony is crucial for individuals facing changing circumstances after a California divorce. Seeking legal advice and guidance can help navigate the complexities of the modification process.

The Bottom Line

So, how does alimony work in California? Let's recap the key takeaways.

There are two types of California spousal support, or alimony, available to divorcing parties: temporary and long-term spousal support. Temporary support is paid during a divorce case, while long-term spousal support refers to alimony awards that follow the conclusion of the case.

How alimony is calculated in California also depends on the type of support at issue. Temporary alimony is often calculated using a formula and is aimed at allowing both spouses to maintain the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage. Meanwhile, long-term spousal support is calculated based on a list of factors and largely left to the court's discretion.

How long alimony lasts in CA depends on the court's support order, as well as specific events, including remarriage, death, or other substantial changes in the parties' circumstances. California alimony can be modified but typically requires one party to demonstrate sufficient grounds to justify altering the court's order.

If you are facing divorce in California, consider speaking with a divorce attorney. The details of California alimony laws can be complex, and an experienced family law attorney can be an invaluable resource as you navigate a challenging and complicated process.

FAQs About Alimony in California

Is alimony taxable in California?

calculator, taxes

Note that the rules for whether alimony is taxable in California are different for federal and state taxes.

For federal taxes, changes in federal tax laws have eliminated the tax implications of alimony payments for both the payer and the recipient for spousal support orders finalized in 2019 or later. Unlike the previous tax treatment, alimony is no longer deductible for the paying spouse, and the receiving spouse does not need to report it as taxable income.

For state taxes, however, the paying spouse may still deduct payments, and the recipient spouse must report spousal support payments as income.

How long do you have to be married to get alimony in California?

There is no strict rule on how long you need to be married to receive alimony in California. The court considers many factors, and both short-term and long-term marriages may warrant spousal support.

To be sure, one of those factors is the duration of the marriage. And roughly speaking, longer marriages are more likely to involve spousal support and for spousal support orders to last longer. But the court examines the particular circumstances of each case to determine the appropriateness of alimony based on many factors such as the age, health, and financial needs of each spouse.

How do you avoid paying alimony in California?

If you're wondering how to avoid paying alimony in California, it's worth first noting that you should, of course, comply with any court-ordered spousal support arrangement. If you have been ordered to pay alimony, it's important to pay it, and there can be consequences if you do not meet your spousal support obligations.

Thus, if you want to avoid having to pay alimony in California, there are two main scenarios to consider: before a spousal support order is in place and after one is established.

Before alimony has been ordered, you could consider entering a prenuptial agreement with your spouse that addresses spousal support. Or, if you are married and did not sign a prenup, you could still work with your spouse to negotiate a fair resolution of the marriage that does not require either spouse to pay alimony to the other.

If alimony payments have already been ordered or negotiated and you wish to avoid paying alimony because your or your ex-spouse's circumstances have changed, you could seek to modify the alimony arrangement with the court. Likewise, alimony typically ends upon certain events discussed above, such as if the receiving spouse cohabitates with a new partner.