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How Is Alimony Calculated in California (CA)?


This alimony system was built around the idea that the job market significantly disfavored women, so a divorced wife could rarely support herself. As a result, alimony often required a significant division of future income for either life or until the recipient remarried. Most states have changed this system in whole or in part. Alimony, today, is often based on duration of the underlying marriage rather than future remarriage. Here is how California handles the matter.

A financial advisor can help you create a plan for your finances before, during and after divorce.

California Spousal Support

In California, the term “alimony” has been replaced with “spousal support.” It is awarded in cases of formal divorce, legal separation (typically the period during which parties live apart while processing their divorce) and domestic restraining orders. 

In all cases, parties can agree to a support settlement based on their own terms. If so, a family court judge will review the agreement to ensure that it is fair and reasonable, that it meets the needs of any third-party dependents, and that there is no coercion or other extraordinary circumstance. Absent these objections, the parties are broadly free to agree on any settlement they choose. When the judge signs off on this settlement, it is turned from an informal agreement to a binding order. 

If the parties cannot agree on a settlement, a judge may issue a support order. In that case, the court will use statutory requirements as the basis for support.

There are two forms of spousal support in California: Temporary and long-term.

Temporary Spousal Support in California

This is court-ordered support for while a family law case is ongoing. Typically, in the case of a divorce or separation, these are payments that one spouse makes to another while the divorce is pending. The purpose is to allow the parties to separate without immediate financial hardship. 

You can request temporary support as soon as a family law case is filed.

If the court issues a temporary support order, it will be calculated based on a three-part balancing test: First, the needs of the spouse with less income. Second, the ability to pay for the spouse with more income. Third, any special or specific needs such as child care, tuition, medical bills, or upkeep of joint assets (like a house).

There is no legislated formula for temporary spousal support. That said, judges will typically base their decision on some sort of math. A common formula is: 

  • Monthly Support = 40% higher earner’s income – 50% lower earner’s income

So, for example, say that one spouse earns $96,000 per year after taxes, or $8,000 per month. The other spouse earns $48,000 per year after taxes, or $4,000 per month. The court might start with a support calculation of:

  • 0.4 * $8,000 = $3,200
  • 0.5 * $4,000 = $2,000
  • $3,200 – $2,000 = $1,200

The court would start by assuming a $1,200 base of potential support payments. It might then adjust that based on the needs of each party. For example, say that the receiving spouse only needed an additional $500 per month in order to pay for their costs of living. The court might adjust the award down to $500. On the other hand, say that the receiving spouse had significant medical needs. The court might adjust the award up to $1,500 to compensate.

Either party may request changes to temporary support based on changing circumstances. For example, say that the receiving spouse gets a new job at a higher pay. The paying spouse may request an amended support order in light of the new facts.

Long-Term Spousal Support in California

In California, spousal support payments are not based on a specific formula. Instead, judges will issue support orders based on the totality of the circumstances on a case-by-case basis.

Long-term spousal support is also called “rehabilitative spousal support” in California. These payments are framed as a bridge for the disadvantaged spouse to recover their finances, although that bridge can last for several years.

Long-term support is most common in two specific situations:

  • When the marriage was long, putting the lower-earning spouse at a potentially greater disadvantage
  • When one spouse earns significantly more than the other, potentially creating greater financial burdens for the lower-earning spouse

There are three forms of long-term support orders that a family law judge can issue:

  • Payment. An order of current payment from one spouse to another.
  • Reserve. An order keeping the matter open for future, potential payment. 
  • Closed. An order closing the matter, ending current and potential support.

There is no legislated formula for long-term spousal support. Unlike with temporary support, there is also not a rule-of-thumb formula. Instead, a judge will weigh the totality of the circumstances in issuing their order. Those circumstances are broadly outlined in CA Family Code § 4320

It’s important to note that the law requires a different analysis than the courts describe. The California courts describe long-term support as intended to help one spouse get back on their feet and move past the financial shock of separation. However, the code is clear that courts should consider “the extent to which the earning capacity of each party is sufficient to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage.” This includes income differences, the recipient’s marketable skills, the job market for those skills and the potential impact of extended unemployment.

In other words, despite the description of this as a bridge to self-sufficiency, the law specifically instructs courts to keep one party in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. 

Among other matters, judges will balance some of the following factors in an order of support:

  • Domestic contributions
  • Duration of the marriage (a longer marriage will generate higher support payments)
  • Extended unemployment
  • Contributions to one spouse’s education, licensing or career position (basically, if you paid their way through school)
  • The payer’s income, earning capacity, assets and standard of living
  • The needs of each party to maintain their lifestyle (the CA Code notes this twice) 
  • The financial obligations of each party, and costs of any major assets
  • The maintenance costs for minor children and dependents
  • The employability of the receiving spouse
  • Age and health of both parties
  • Any substantiated evidence of domestic violence
  • Tax consequences of both the separation and the support payments
  • Overall balance of hardships
  • Any and all other factors that are, in the opinion of the court, relevant 

The court will balance all of these factors in setting payment amounts.

Support payments in California are not indefinite. In general, they are based on the duration of the marriage; the longer the marriage, the longer support payments will last. Take note: California law allows a judge full discretion to interpret if a marriage was “long-term” regardless of duration.

As the Code states, a support order will be written with “the goal that the supported party shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time.” Absent other circumstances, courts would use one-half the length of the marriage as a starting point for reasonability.  

So, for example, if two parties were married for 15 years, the court will start by assuming 7.5 years of support payments. However, judges have discretion in adjusting that figure as they deem suitable. Support always ends when the receiving spouse dies or remarries. Otherwise, once a support order has been entered, it can only be modified by court order. A party can request a change based on two primary circumstances: 

  • First, if both parties sign an agreement to modify the support order, you can submit the agreement as the basis for modification. It is extremely important to understand that your legal obligations do not change until the court has issued a modification order. If you stop making payments based purely on this written agreement, your former spouse could have the right to collect back-payments and penalties. 
  • Second, if one spouse’s situation has significantly changed in a way that affects the support order’s underlying assumptions. For example, if the receiving spouse gets a significantly higher-paying job or if the paying spouse loses their job, you may petition for an amended order based on changed circumstances.

Bottom Line

Alimony, today, is often based on duration of the underlying marriage rather than future remarriage.

In California, spousal support payments are not based on a specific formula. Instead, judges will issue support orders based on the totality of the circumstances on a case-by-case basis. This can make it difficult to predict how support orders will be issued in any given situation.

Financial Planning Tips for Divorce

  • The divorce rate has declined in the U.S. since the 1980s. But, you may still need to prepare for it anyway. Here are four common tips to plan your finances for a divorce.
  • A financial advisor can help you build a comprehensive retirement plan. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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