Spousal Support

When a couple legally separates or divorces, the court may order a spouse or domestic partner to pay the other a certain amount of support money each month.  This is called “spousal support” for married couples and “partner support” in domestic partnerships.  It is sometimes also called “alimony.”

spousal supportWhy are spousal and partner support such a difficult legal issue?  California law has provided varying degrees of circumstances for spousal support.  Spousal support calculations are not always computerized according to strict guidelines as to child support.


Spousal and partner support are difficult legal issues, as posted on the California Courts’ website 

When can Spousal Support be paid? 

When the couple separates and the income of the parties is off-balance, meaning one party is earning significantly less than the other spouse, then temporary spousal support may be necessary and awarded by the Court.  An application called a “Request for Order” must be filed, and the court will set a hearing.  If emergency needs are required, then the Court may schedule a hearing on short notice or an attorney can arrange for an overnight hearing, depending on the circumstances.

How is Spousal Support calculated in California?

Spousal support is calculated in two different stages:

Initial stage – Temporary spousal support.

The Los Angeles County courts have informally adopted a guideline called the Santa Clara Guideline formula for setting temporary spousal support.  This calculation can be performed by a computer program called DissoMaster owned by most family law attorneys and utilized in court by the judge.  The Santa Clara guideline provides that spousal support can be up to 40% of his or her net monthly income, reduced by one-half of the receiving spouse’s net monthly income.  If child support is also requested at the same time, the guideline level of child support is first calculated.  Then spousal support is calculated in the same program.

Second stage

The judge will not use a formula to figure out how much spousal or partner support to order at the end of your case. When the judge makes his or her final spousal or partner support order, the judge must consider the factors in California Family Code section 4320  .

These factors include:

  • The length of the marriage or domestic partnership;
  • What each person needs based on the standard of living they had during the marriage or domestic partnership;
  • What each person pays or can pay (including earnings and earning capacity) to keep the standard of living they had during the marriage or domestic partnership;
  • Whether having a job would make it too hard to take care of the children;
  • The age and health of both people;
  • Debts and property;
  • Whether 1 spouse or domestic partner helped the other get an education, training, career, or professional license;
  • Whether there was domestic violence in the marriage or domestic partnership;
  • Whether 1 spouse’s or domestic partner’s, career was affected by unemployment or by taking care of the children or home; and
  • The tax impact of spousal support (note: federal and state tax laws have not been changed to recognize domestic partnerships).

The spousal or partner support order then becomes part of your final divorce or legal separation judgment.  Form FL157  is routinely used to inform the judge of these factors.

How long does Spousal Support last in California?

In California, a marriage of 10 years or more is considered a “long-term marriage.”  For a “long-term marriage” the Court has the discretion to award spousal support for a fixed period of time, with a conditional termination date or an indefinite period of time, subject to modification.  When evaluating the factors for an “indefinite period of time,” the health and capabilities of the spouse are paramount considerations.  If capable, the spouse receiving spousal support is encouraged and sometimes ordered to seek employment no matter how long the marriage.

A marriage of fewer than 10 years is considered a marriage of “short duration.”  In a “short duration” marriage, a standard period of spousal support is one-half the length of the marriage.   However, oftentimes the one-half the length can be extended depending on the employment status of the spouse.

Can Spousal Support be Changed or Ended?

Yes, changing (modifying) or ending spousal support will depend on a “change in circumstances.”  There are many reasons why a support order may need to be changed.  Maybe the spouse or partner that was getting support no longer needs it, or the person paying support has had a significant drop in income and can no longer afford the amount of support.  Sometimes, the spouse/partner getting support is not making a good faith effort toward being self-supporting, so the paying spouse/partner can ask the court to end the support order based on this.  Or a spouse/partner that was being supported remarries, and the support needs to be ended. See Changing (or Ending) a Spousal/Partner Support Order  .

To change or end spousal support, a “Request for Order” must be filed with the Court, and a court order must be secured changing the spousal support.

RoseAnn Frazee has experience on changing spousal support and the issues are more complex than can be written in this brief overview, such as discovery issues.  A party should consult with RoseAnn Frazee if s/he has spousal support issues.

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