Alimony in California

Alimony in California

Alimony is the money ordered by the court to be paid to a dependent spouse or partner as support money following a divorce in California. For a previously married couple, California refers to the alimony payment as spousal support, while in a domestic partnership, the amount of support money paid is termed partner support. Alimony or spousal support is not guaranteed or considered a right in California. Generally, alimony may be divided into two categories: temporary and permanent.

Temporary alimony is spousal support that is imposed while divorce proceedings have started but have yet to finalize. Permanent alimony is the spousal support awarded after the finalization of divorce proceedings when the court concludes the divorce action. Permanent alimony is more commonly referred to as post-divorce judgment support. In this context, the word "permanent" is somewhat of a misnomer. In reality, few alimony awards continue indefinitely. Per Section 4336 of the California Family Code, permanent alimony may be awarded to parties ending long-term marriages where the dependent spouses cannot enter the labor market due to illness or old age. In California, divorcing parties have the option of requesting temporary alimony, permanent alimony, or both.

Alimony in California is neither devised to penalize a spouse or partner for perceived misconduct during the marriage or after separation nor is it intended as consolation for tolerating perceived abuse during or after divorce or separation. California's policy is that both divorcing parties become self-sufficient after divorce within a reasonable period. Alimony is intended to bridge the time gap for the dependent divorcing party to obtain employment or acquire resources that help fulfill basic needs.

California Alimony Laws

California alimony statutes are codified under Sections 4330 - 4360 of the state Family Code. The laws authorize California courts to order alimony payments during and after divorce proceedings. California courts may order the payment of alimony in order to alleviate inequitable economic burdens that dependent spouses or divorcing parties may experience. These payments vary in amount and the period over which they must be made.

Per California alimony statutes, a court may award alimony if:

  • The divorcing party from whom spousal support is requested has been convicted of domestic violence within 2 years preceding the filing of the divorce action.
  • The divorcing party requesting alimony:
    • Does not own enough property to meet basic needs
    • Is unable to be self-supporting through employment due to a physically or mentally incapacitating impairment
    • Is the custodian of a child who needs significant care and supervision due to a physical or mental handicap that precludes the spouse from working outside the home
    • Clearly lacks earning capacity in the labor market to meet minimum reasonable needs.

Per Section 4320 of the California Family Code, when determining who should pay alimony and the specific amount to be paid, the court will assess the degree to which each divorcing party's earning capacity can sustain the marital standard of living, taking the following into consideration:

  • The dependent party's marketable talents; the job market for those skills; the expense and time required to obtain the necessary education or training to develop those skills; and the dependent party's potential need for retraining or education to acquire employment or more marketable skills
  • The degree to which the dependent party's earning capacity is impacted by sustained periods of unemployment during the marriage in order to dedicate time to domestic tasks
  • How much the dependent party contributed to the alimony-paying party's education, training, job, or license
  • The capacity of the alimony-paying party to make the required payments (taking into consideration the paying party's earning capacity, earned and unearned income, assets, and lifestyle)
  • Financial needs of both divorcing parties with respect to the standard of living experienced in the marriage
  • Debts and assets of both divorcing parties, including separate properties
  • The duration of the marriage
  • The capacity of the dependent party to work outside the home without unreasonably impacting the interests of any dependent child in the custody of the dependent party
  • The health and ages of the divorcing parties
  • Proof of history of domestic violence between the divorcing parties, as defined in Section 6211 of the California Family Code, including emotional distress caused by domestic violence in the marriage.
  • The immediate and unique tax implications for each divorcing party
  • The criminal convictions of an abusive spouse
  • The balance of the hardships to each divorcing party
  • Any other criteria explicitly determined by the court to be reasonable and appropriate

Note that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) introduced significant changes to how individuals' income taxes are calculated, affecting how alimony payments are treated. According to the Tax Foundation, the TCJA eliminates tax deductions for parties who divorced in 2019 or after. This implies that individuals who pay alimony cannot deduct such payments from their taxable incomes, and individuals receiving alimony payments cannot include it in their taxable incomes.

The TCJA brought a substantial change from previous tax applications of alimony payments, resulting in a significant shift in tax benefit from the party paying the alimony to the recipient of the support. Prior to the enactment of the TCJA, alimony payments were tax deductible for parties making support payments. The more alimony you pay, the larger your deductible. Alimony was required to be claimed as income by the recipient and taxed accordingly. However, the tax burden is not as severe because the recipient is typically a lower-income individual. Now, alimony recipients are no longer obligated to pay taxes on or include their alimony payments in their incomes. For individuals who finalized divorce before 2019, alimony remains tax-deductible.

How Does Alimony Work in California?

California permits domestic partners or spouses to enter formal agreements to partner or spousal support orders. By agreeing and signing a formal agreement, also called a stipulation, divorcing spouses or separating partners do not have to appear before a judge and leave the decision up to the court. Note that any formal agreement between divorcing parties must be approved by the judge and signed for the agreement to become a legal order. Family law facilitators in California courts usually help divorce parties work out spousal or partner support agreements and convert them to written agreements.

If the divorcing parties cannot come to an agreement, an action must be filed in court before a spousal support order may be legally established. A divorcing party may ask the court to make a spousal order as part of a divorce, legal separation, annulment case, or a domestic violence restraining order. You may request spousal support while the case is going on in court or wait for the long-term spousal support awarded after the divorce case has concluded.

Alimony payments are typically made monthly; however, it is possible to avoid monthly payments if you agree with the other divorcing party to make lump-sum payments. An alimony-paying party may prefer lump-sum payments in order to avoid facing the consequence of missing a month's payment. Other than temporary, long-term, and lump sum types of alimony, California courts may also award rehabilitative or reimbursement alimony. Rehabilitative alimony provides for the payment of spousal support for a specific duration until a particular event occurs, such as gaining employment.

Rehabilitative alimony is meant to assist the dependent party in becoming self-sufficient by obtaining other work skills, earning a college degree, or finding new employment. It is often ordered when the dependent party has made significant sacrifices to support the other party's career or raise the couple's children. Reimbursement alimony is a special type of alimony intended to compensate a divorcing party for contributions made to promote the career or education of the other divorcing spouse. If one divorcing spouse supports the family while the other spouse pursues college or work training, the court may stipulate this sort of spousal support.

In California, spousal support orders may be modified or revoked, except in instances where both parties agree otherwise. The court may alter your spousal support order only if the party requesting modification can establish that there has been a notable and considerable change in circumstances since the previous order. The modification must be significant and material, such as a reduction in income. In this case, the court may temporarily reduce your support payments until you are able to find a new job.

How Long Does Alimony Last in California?

The period over which alimony payments last is dependent on several factors. The court determines the period using specific guidelines and principles that create an equitable financial solution. Typically, alimony is granted based on the length of the marriage. In accordance with Section 4320(l) of the California Family Code, there is a rebuttable presumption that alimony payments last for half the duration of marriages considered legally valid for up to 10 years. These types of marriages are referred to as short-term marriages, and spousal support payments are also relatively short-term. For instance, for a marriage that lasted 8 years, alimony payments will typically last four years.

For marriages that last over 10 years, the period over which alimony payments will be made is long-term. Spousal support payments in long-term marriages do not follow any set standards like short-term marriages. Per Section 4336 of the California Family Code, California courts will continue to retain jurisdiction to order alimony in long-term marriages unless the divorcing parties agree that the court should not retain that power. That is, the court is authorized to decide when alimony can be terminated in marriages that lasted more than 10 years. In long-term marriages, the court considers several factors in determining spousal support in order to position the dependent party as close as possible to the marital standard of living until the dependent party can be self-supporting.

Note that alimony payments in California may end due to other factors beyond the length of the marriage. These factors include:

  • The death of either divorced party
  • If the dependent party remarries
  • If a California court judgment or order sets a specific date for the support to end

How Much is Alimony in California?

Alimony cases are handled on a case-by-case basis in California courts. Hence, the amount of alimony depends on the circumstances and facts of each case. First, California courts treat temporary alimony differently from permanent alimony. Therefore, if you are requesting alimony while a divorce action is ongoing, the court balances your needs with the capacity of the other spouse to pay spousal support. The court will use a spousal support formula to calculate the appropriate amount of spousal support, but the court is not mandated to follow the calculations precisely. The formula is designed to allocate net income evenly between the divorcing parties.

How is Alimony Calculated in California?

Courts in various California counties use slightly different factors when calculating temporary alimony. Note that the rules in your local court will explain how temporary alimony is calculated in your county. For instance, the superior courts of Solano County in California have approved a spousal support calculation known as the "Santa Clara Guideline" for use in temporary alimony. Alameda and Contra Costa county governments have adopted the "Alameda Guideline" formula. The guideline suggests that spousal support be approximately 40% of the paying party's net monthly income, minus half of the receiving party's net monthly income. For instance, if the party paying alimony earns $10,000 monthly, and the dependent spouse earns $5,000 monthly, the spousal support granted is likely to be about $1,500 per month. Note that if the party paying alimony also pays child support, alimony is computed after child support is determined.

Determining California's permanent spousal support or alimony does not follow any standard guidelines. In deciding the amount to be paid for permanent alimony, the court will assess the case based on the factors stated in Section 4320 of the state’s Family Code.

How to Avoid Paying Alimony in California?

California allows divorcing couples to have control over their divorce proceedings, including alimony issues if they can agree on how to manage the issues in the divorce. This permission enables divorcing parties to negotiate agreements and resolve their divorce cases without relying on California courts. If both parties in a divorce are able to agree that alimony is not necessary, the court will typically not insist on awarding spousal support. Hence, you can avoid paying alimony in California if you have a written statement or agreement with the other divorcing party to avoid spousal support, and the agreement is approved in court.

A prenuptial agreement also allows divorcing parties to establish alimony arrangements prior to their marriage. The agreement or arrangement may be used to either limit alimony to a certain amount or avoid it entirely. If you are unable to obtain a prenuptial agreement, you can also use a postnuptial agreement to avoid paying spousal support. A postnuptial agreement may contain elaborate clauses, including adultery clauses, which may restrict or cancel alimony for a cheating spouse who breaches the stipulated conditions. California courts usually offer couples a lot of leeway with prenuptial and postnuptial agreements.