What is the Marital Standard of Living and Why Does It Matter?

Sep 26, 2017

The Court has a statutory list of 14 factors to consider in making orders for spousal support. Three of those factors directly refer to the marital standard of living. Specifically, the Court needs to consider (1) the earning ability or each party, (2) the ability of each party to pay support and (3) the needs of each party through the lens of the marital standard of living.


Marital Standard of Living Defined

The marital standard of living is a measure in place to ensure that the “Out-Spouse” (lower-earning spouse) who engaged in domestic duties and childcare (and putting his/her career on hold) during the marriage, is not negatively affected following dissolution.

The Court is therefore forced to consider whether the parties were lower-income, or middle-class, or wealthy in general terms, and, while not the only factor, use that characterization of the marital standard or living to guide how much support will be needed to keep both parties at that lifestyle.

The California Family Code considers that financial circumstances are not set in stone, and fluctuate over time. The Marital Standard of living in calculated by considering the couple’s lifestyle just before the divorce. However, as stated the Marital Standard of Living is only a factor that is considered, and in the Marriage of Rising (1999) 76 Cal. App. 4th 472 the Court ruled that the Marital Standard of living is less relevant with passing time.

Effect of Living Frugally or Extravagantly

The Court in Marriage of Drapeau (2001) 93 Cal.App.4th 1086 made an interesting ruling about the definition of the term “marital standard of living.” The family in question spent very frugally, and actually lived considerably below their means, while investing a significant portion of their income. The Court ruled that “Savings & Investments” were a valid category of expenses to consider as part of the marital standard of living, and support for the supported spouse should be sufficient for her to continue making investments as well as paying her living expenses.

The family in Marriage of Smith (1990) 225 Cal.App3d 469 was quite the opposite. The couple went to lavish parties and lived considerably beyond their means. Their extravagant lifestyle was financed by credit they did not have. The supported party wanted the marital standard of living to be maintained and reflected in a high spousal support figure. The Court in that case gave nearly no weight to the marital standard of living, seeing through it as a facade and decided that it would be inequitable to force the supporting party to maintain.

Both Spouses’ Needs Must Be Considered

The big complication that generally arises with support is that there are now two households that need to be supported. This leads to adjustments that can take many forms, whether that means downsizing, or that means a spouse that was not working or was working part-time finds full-time employment to fill the gap. Regardless of what shape that adjustment takes, the Court in the Marriage of Andreen (1978) 76 Cal.App. 3d 667 made it clear that both spouses’ needs and ability to maintain the marital standard of living must be considered. If one spouse is going broke trying to keep the supported party living the high life, that is a sure sign that the marital standard of living was not considered for both spouses. If you find yourself on the wrong side of this equation, it would behoove you to reach out to a Family Law expert for a downward modification of spousal support.

By Baruch Kreiman, Esq.

© Alphonse F. Provinziano, Esq.