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Understanding Spousal Support Awards in California

Understanding Spousal Support Awards in California

Spousal support, which is also called alimony, is a court ordered requirement that one spouse pay the other a certain amount of money each month. Spousal support can only be awarded by a California family court after a spouse files a civil claim in court. Clearly, most spousal support awards are related to divorce, but other grounds for alimony include legal separation, annulment, and domestic violence.

Understanding Spousal Support Awards in California

Alimony laws don’t allow an ex-spouse to manipulate the system by refusing to work.

It’s not a secret that a marriage will normally require compromise, which includes a common situation where a mother will remain voluntarily unemployed in order to stay at home and raise their children.

Other situations include a spouse working part-time or taking a job with less pay in order to maintain a flexible schedule to be free to start creating a family business.

It should be noted that California’s alimony laws don’t allow an ex-spouse to manipulate the system by simply refusing to work, but the family courts do consider other factors than just a spouse’s potential income when determining support obligations.

For example, a spouse’s employment history, education, and opportunities could potentially have an impact of the spousal support award during marriage dissolution proceedings.

For more information, our Los Angeles divorce and family law attorneys are providing a detailed review below.

Review of California Spousal Support Awards

California Family Code 4320 defines spousal support calculations and says the reason alimony exists is to assist the receiving spouse to become self-sufficient.

Thus, during support proceedings in family court, judges normally consider the income of each spouse along with their earning potential.  The court will review some of the following circumstances related to spousal income in order to make a decision:

  • actual income and earning potential of paying spouse;
  • if each spouse’s earning capacity supports the marital standard of living;
  • supported spouse’s education and skills related to current job opportunities;
  • if household responsibilities effected spouse’s future earning capacity;
  • whether the supported spouse has the ability to maximize their earning capacity while raising their children.

In other words, California family law courts will seek to provide a supported spouse some financial assistance until they can get back into the workforce and make their own money.

In a situation where the supported spouse is able to get a job quickly that can maintain their marital lifestyle, then the judge will likely order short-term spousal support.

Courts could also allow a lump sum payment if one spouse was a main contributor to the other spouse’s earning potential.

This type of spousal support award typically occurs when a spouse maintained employment during the marriage in order for the other spouse to earn an advanced college degree or training.

In other words, if one spouse sacrificed a potential career for the benefit of their entire family, then the judge can use this information for income calculations.

When Can a Spouse Receive Alimony?

Spousal support can be awarded by the judge while a claim is currently processing or after the court makes a final decision.

Alimony can be awarded during processing or after the divorce is finalized.

A judge will grant a temporary spousal support orders while the claim is pending in court.

They will normally use an established formula to decide the amount of the order, but these formulas are different depending on the jurisdiction.

It should be noted, however, the alimony calculations are determined after claims for child support have been paid.

A family court judge will grant long-term spousal support orders at the end of the divorce case. It will become a permanent order for the divorce or legal separation.

The judge will not use a formula in order to determine the amount of the spousal support award, but are required to consider the factors described under California law.

Factors Considered for Long-Term Spousal Support

When a California family court judge is reviewing a spousal support request, they will consider the factors listed under California Family Code 4320, including:

  • length of the marriage,
  • health and age of each spouse,
  • assets, debts, and property of each spouse,
  • ability of each spouse to afford their marital standard of living,
  • amount needed for receiving spouse to maintain standard of living,
  • if one spouse helped the other receive education or job training,
  • if there is any history of domestic violence.

Imputing Income During Spousal Support Proceedings

There are situations when one spouse has a high earning potential, but this is not factored into their actual income amount.

Clearly, family courts can’t force a spouse to go find a job that better represents their income potential, but they are allowed to impute additional income while calculating a support award.

In other words, imputed income is essentially the gap between a spouse’s current income amount and their potential income earning capacity.

Obviously, if the judge decides to assign additional income to the paying spouse, it will increase the monthly support award for the receiving spouse.

On the flip side, imputing income to a receiving spouse will decrease the amount of spousal support they receive.

Family courts will not typically impute income for spouses who have a career full-time job. A judge will not normally take into consideration a situation where a spouse accepts a lower paying job in order to receive better benefits or environment.

Requesting a Vocational Training Assessment

It’s not uncommon for spouses to challenge the others earning capacity, which can lead to lengthy divorce process.

These type of “what if my spouse could be earning more” conflicts are dealt with by allowing spouses to request a certified vocational examination, which is described under California Family Code 4331.

Under this process, a qualified vocational counselor will evaluate a spouses reasonable earning capacity by a close review of the following factors:

  • age and health of spouse,
  • history of employment,
  • education level and training,
  • marketable skills,
  • current job market and opportunities,
  • ability to get a job to maintain standard of living.

Vocational experts will normally use income guidelines to calculate a spouses earning capacity for use by a family court judge to make a spousal support order.

In some cases, these experts will also provide the court with a self-support assessment that gives the judge specific time frames for a spouse to get training that would benefit them financially.

California family law courts normally accept the accuracy of these reports during the proceedings to determine a spousal support award, but the other spouse is allowed to challenge the information during the assessment period.

Family Law Lawyers for Spousal Support Cases

If you are going through the process of a divorce or separation, you could avoid the cost and aggravation of a court battle by coming to a mutual agreement with your spouse over providing alimony.

Family Law Lawyers for California Spousal Support Cases

Call our law firm for a free case evaluation.

With the legal guidance from an experienced California family law attorney, you can outline the specific terms of the agreement including the amount of monthly payments and when exactly they will terminate.

If you are unable to reach an agreement on your own, then you are forcing the court to make the decision for you. We are frequently asked what if my spouse could be earning more money?

Family court judges will consider several factors to determine an appropriate alimony awards. Since alimony exists to assist a supported spouse reach a point of financial independence, their earning capacity is a factor during the proceedings for marital dissolution.

If you need more information about California spousal support awards, then contact our office to review the specific details of your case and explain your legal rights.

Furman & Zavatsky are Certified Family Law Specialist with the State Bar of California. Call our office for a free case consultation at (818) 528-3471, or fill out our contact form.


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