California Law: Alimony

By Teo Spengler

Updated August 09, 2019

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The world changes as time passes and sometimes laws have to change as well to keep up. This is the case with the alimony laws in California. What used to be called "alimony" is now usually known as "spousal support," and that's just the tip of the iceberg. The law is quite different today than it was a century ago.

California Alimony Laws

If you search for "California alimony laws 2019" on the internet, you may be surprised to wind up on a page called "spousal/partner support." The old term is gradually being phased out in California and many previous alimony concepts just aren't applicable any more.

In yesteryear, alimony was a monthly support payment regularly included as part of a divorce resolution. It was almost always paid by ex-husbands to their former wives and often continued indefinitely for the rest of their lives. Sometimes it could be impacted by fault, with the wife getting a larger alimony award if the husband was caught cheating.

California Spousal/Partner Support

These days, alimony is strictly based on need, not on any concept of punishment, and it is gender-neutral. It is officially called California spousal/partner support and is available when a marriage or a domestic partnership ends. A California court can also include an order for spousal/partner support in a domestic violence restraining order.

Because alimony in California is strictly based on financial need and is gender neutral, both women and men can be eligible to receive it if they earn significantly less than the other person in the relationship.

If you are eligible for spousal/partner support, you can apply for help at different stages of the legal proceeding. Support during the time the divorce proceeding is pending is termed temporary spousal support, while the support granted at the close is termed permanent spousal support. That doesn't mean it always is a permanent award however.

Temporary Spousal/Partner Support Order

Temporary alimony is a set amount of money to be paid to one spouse each month by the other spouse while a divorce case is going on. It is set on motion when a spouse files papers at the beginning of the divorce seeking temporary alimony.

Under California law, the court can make an order for temporary spousal support retroactive to the date of the filing of the divorce petition. However, courts in most cases award temporary support from the date that the spouse filed the request for spousal support.

Calculating Temporary Spousal Support

Temporary alimony in California is based on one person's need and the other person's ability to pay. The goal in setting an amount is to maintain the status quo of the marriage, providing each spouse with the same standard of living while the divorce action is proceeding.

Most courts use a computer program formula to set a temporary alimony amount. These vary from one court to the next, but the same program is often used for temporary alimony that is used for child support calculation. The court has discretion to depart from the result of the computer program formula if circumstances warrant, but they usually do not.

These programs require court personnel to input the couple's financial data, like income for the past year, tax filing status and certain permitted tax deductions, to determine the couple's net disposable income. For a couple with children, the court will run the numbers for child support at the same time as for spousal support.

Duration of Temporary Alimony

Usually a California court orders that the temporary alimony monthly amount be paid directly from one spouse to the other. Once an order is entered, it remains in effect during the entire proceeding unless it is reconsidered by the court. It terminates when a judgment is entered in the divorce.

At that time, the court will consider whether permanent alimony is appropriate. The procedure for determining whether permanent alimony should be ordered is not the same as for weighing temporary alimony.

California Permanent Alimony Laws

The rules and calculation for California permanent alimony are very different than for temporary alimony. That's because a court faced with a permanent alimony request has to look at different factors listed in the law. It is not allowed to use the computer program to determine the amount. Rather, alimony at the time of the divorce judgment has to be determined based on the fourteen factors set out in California Family Code 4320. These factors include:

  • Each spouse’s ability to maintain the “marital lifestyle” once divorced based on current income levels.
  • Any support one spouse contributed to the other's earning a college degree, professional license or some other career or position of high earnings.
  • The income of the higher-earning spouse and that spouse's ability to pay alimony.
  • The financial needs of each spouse based on the standard of living in their marriage.
  • The debts and assets assigned to each spouse in the divorce as well as the separate assets of either.
  • The length of the marriage.
  • The ability of the lower-earning spouse to earn a living and how that role would impact a role as a caretaker of the children, if there are any.
  • The ages and health of the spouses. 
  • Any evidence of domestic violence.
  • The impact of alimony on each spouse’s taxes.
  • Any particular hardships of either spouse.
  • The ability of the lower-earning spouse to become self-sufficient within a reasonable period of time.
  • Any convictions for domestic violence.
  • Any other relevant factors. 

Duration of Alimony

In California divorces, a marriage that lasted 10 years or more is called a long-term marriage, while those that lasted less than 10 years are called short-term marriages. The goal of post-divorce alimony in California is to help the lower-earning spouse to become self-sufficient in a reasonable period of time whether the marriage is short term or long term. That is the period of time that alimony will be awarded for.

The judge hearing the case weighs all the factors listed in the statutes and uses that information to determine what a "reasonable period of time" is for the less-earning spouse to become self-sufficient. California law suggests that the reasonable period of time in short-term marriages is one-half the length of the marriage. That means that if a marriage lasted eight years, the lesser-earning spouse should get alimony for four years. However, the divorce court judge has the authority to decide differently if circumstances require a different result. In any event, a court awarding alimony in a short-term marriage usually sets an ending date for the alimony payments in the divorce decree.

Open-Ended Alimony Term for Longer Marriages

On the other hand, when a marriage has lasted more than 10 years, the judge usually does not set an ending date for the alimony in the divorce decree. Instead, the alimony award is open-ended. This doesn't mean that the supported spouse necessarily gets alimony for life; that spouse must make continued efforts to become self-supporting.

The person paying alimony can come back to court and request a modification of the order if the other spouse is making no effort toward self-sufficiency. The spouse receiving alimony can also come back to court seeking increased alimony if needs and resources change.