Understanding Spousal Support Laws in California

Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP

Spousal support, also known as alimony, is often one of the most contentious issues involved in the dissolution of marriage. These orders permit the supported spouse to maintain their standard of living close to the level they were accustomed to during their marriage. However, they can also pose a significant financial burden for the supporting party who is now supporting two households. 

This often leads to conflict as separating spouses pursue their own interests. Furthermore, disputes over spousal support can continue long after a marriage ends if either party requests a modification to the order.

If you are facing a spousal support dispute, it is imperative that you understand the laws surrounding the issue. Below, we have broken down the most important rules regarding spousal support and how they impact divorcing couples, so you can better understand what to expect when in court.

California Laws Regarding Spousal Support

Spousal support is regulated by Division 9, Part 3 of the California Family Code. Chapters 2 and 3, sections 4320-4326 and 4330-4339, are most relevant to divorcing couples. They delineate how courts may order support and under what circumstances. So long as judges follow each of the following sections, they have significant discretion to determine what is a fair and equitable order in a particular situation. 

Sec. 4320: Elements Courts Must Consider When Determining Spousal Support Orders

Judges must consider the following details to determine whether to issue an order, as well as the amount and duration of that order:

  • The earning capacity of both parties. This includes their marketable skills, the circumstances necessary for those skills to be utilized, and the need to care for any dependent children. Section 4331 further states that the court may require either person to submit to a vocational evaluation to assess this fairly. 
  • The contributions of the supported party towards the supporting party’s career or education. Spouses who have made great contributions to their partner’s career during the marriage at a cost to themselves may receive larger payments after dissolving their marriage.
  • The assets and debts of both parties and the financial means of the supporting party to pay. Section 4338 states that alimony shall be awarded from property that is or should have been community property first, followed by quasi-community property, with separate property of the supporting party considered last.
  • The needs of both parties and their standard of living while married. Section 4332 states that the court must make specific factual findings on the standard of living and other circumstances surrounding the marriage as necessary.
  • The length of the marriage. Section 4336 states that marriages of long duration include but are not limited to those that last 10 years or longer. These marriages are more likely to involve indefinite or “permanent” orders.
  • The health and age of the spouses. Older or ill supporting spouses may be ordered to pay less, while sick or older supported spouses may receive larger payments. In both cases, their health and age will likely impact their ability to provide for themselves.
  • Any history of domestic violence or criminal convictions by the supported party. This is discussed in detail in Sections 4324-4325.
  • The tax impacts of support. These orders may have tax impacts on both parties, which are to be considered by the judge when determining the amount ordered. 
  • The intention that the supported spouse becomes self-sufficient in a reasonable length of time. Section 4330 states that the court must consider this to determine a “just and reasonable” length for the order. 
  • The balance of hardships by each party. Paying spousal support is a hardship for the supporting party, while failing to receive adequate funds is a hardship for the supported party. The court must balance these hardships to ensure neither party suffers unduly. 

Sec. 4321 and 4322: Courts May Deny Support

A judge may choose to deny alimony to a lower-income party if they have enough separate property or if there are enough community assets to divide that they can provide for themselves at the marital standard of living. 

Sec. 4323: Cohabitation With a Partner Is Grounds for Reduced Support

If the presumed recipient of support romantically cohabitates with a nonmarital partner, there is a rebuttable presumption that they have a decreased need for financial assistance. This is true unless a marital settlement agreement exists that states otherwise.

Sec. 4324, 4234.5, 4325: Injured Spouses Shall Not Be Ordered to Pay Support

In cases of convictions for domestic violence, there is a rebuttable presumption that the abusive spouse shall not be awarded an order. This may be rebutted by documented evidence that the convicted spouse was themselves a victim of abuse by the other spouse.

Furthermore, if one spouse has attempted to murder or commit a severe sexual offense against the other, the injured spouse may not be ordered to provide for the aggressor. In cases of criminal convictions for sexual felonies, the injured spouse may have the right to receive 100% of the community property interest in retirement funds. The other spouse must pay all attorneys’ fees on behalf of the injured party.

Sec. 4326: Child Support Order Modifications May Be Grounds for Spousal Support Modifications

Unless a marital agreement or judgment states otherwise, the modification or termination of a companion child support order may be grounds for modification of other orders. It is considered a significant change of circumstances that impacts both parties’ finances, so either spouse may request a change.

Pursue Equitable Spousal Support Orders With Expert Legal Representation

If a California court has jurisdiction over your divorce or legal separation, the laws above will determine whether and how alimony is awarded. Without a legally binding marital settlement agreement, an order is not guaranteed, even in marriages with a significant income disparity. 

If you or your spouse intend to request a spousal support order or modification, it is best to consult with an experienced family law attorney. The qualified attorneys at Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada LLP have decades of experience pursuing fair support for clients like you. Call our Menlo Park office at 650-338-0324, our San Ramon office at 925-433-8896, or reach out online to learn more about how we can help you in your dispute.

Share On

Date Archives