Do I Have to Pay Alimony?

Jul 26, 2021

If you’re like many people, you’re wondering, “Do I have to pay alimony?” Because California allows one spouse to ask the other for alimony – commonly called spousal support – during a divorce, it’s a fairly common question. So will you have to pay?

It depends. 

Here’s what you need to know.

Do I Have to Pay Alimony?

Courts in California don’t automatically assign alimony. One spouse has to ask for it in order for the court to consider it, so if your spouse isn’t asking for any spousal support payments, then you’re not going to have to pay alimony. 

However, if your spouse does ask for alimony, the court will consider it. 

When Will the Court Say “No” to Spousal Support?

If your spouse makes more money than you, has a job and won’t have a difficult time supporting him- or herself, you can probably assume that the court will turn down his or her request for spousal support. The law only provides judges with the ability to grant spousal support in the event that one spouse needs time to become self-sufficient.

For example, if your spouse is fully capable of providing for his or her own needs and come close to maintaining the standard of living established during the marriage, the court will most likely turn down a request for alimony.

The Factors Judges Consider in Spousal Support Requests

When someone asks for spousal support during a divorce, the judge considers several factors. He or she will look at:

  • The asking spouse’s marketable skills
  • The job market for that spouse’s skills
  • How long it would take and how much it would cost for the asking spouse to get the education or training necessary to develop more marketable skills – or to get a job
  • How much the asking spouse’s earning capacity was impaired by periods of unemployment during the marriage because he or she was performing domestic duties

The length of the marriage is also important. In fact, the courts generally expect a supported spouse to become self-sufficient within a reasonable period of time. (Naturally, that can change if the couple is over retirement age, or if they’ve been married for quite some time.)

Under California law, a “reasonable period of time” can be up to half the length of the marriage – but it also provides leeway for judges to order support for more or less time, based on the case’s circumstances.

And in long-term marriages, the judge might not set an end date for the support. That doesn’t mean you have to pay it forever, though; if your circumstances (or your ex-spouse’s circumstances) change significantly, you can petition the judge to change the support order.

Related: What is the marital standard of living, and why does it matter?

What if You Decide Not to Pay Alimony?

If the judge in your case has issued a spousal support order, you don’t have a choice – you must pay it. If you fail to do so, you’re subject to 10 percent interest per year on the balance due. The judge doesn’t have any control over the interest payments; California law says that’s what you must pay.

When you fail to pay alimony, particularly if the court finds that you have the ability to pay but you’ve chosen not to do so, the judge can hold you in contempt of court. If that happens, you could go to jail. However, that’s usually a judge’s last resort – first, the judge in your case is likely to order wage garnishment or tell the IRS to hold back your tax refund, or even take money directly out of your bank account.

Alimony FAQs

Every case is different, and there’s really no way to predict how a judge will rule in yours – but these are some of the most common questions (aside from “Do I have to pay alimony?”) we hear in our office:

  • Is alimony mandatory in California?
  • How is alimony paid?
  • How can I avoid paying alimony in California?
  • When can I stop making spousal support payments?
  • Do I have to pay alimony if my ex-spouse is living with someone?

Here’s a closer look at each question.

Is alimony mandatory in California?

Alimony is only mandatory in California if the judge in your case orders you to pay it. If your spouse doesn’t ask for support, the judge won’t order it. Likewise, if your spouse asks for spousal support but the judge declines to order it, you do not have to pay. 

However, if the judge does order spousal support, you must pay it. If you don’t, the court can garnish your wages, tap into your bank account, or intercept your tax refunds – and you’ll be subject to a 10 percent penalty for the balance due. You could even be arrested and taken to jail if you fail to pay, so in that sense, it’s definitely mandatory.

How is alimony paid in California?

In every case that involves spousal support, the court will order a wage assignment. That means your employer will take your alimony payments right out of your paycheck. However, you and your spouse can agree to make payments in another way (such as writing a check). Your Beverly Hills divorce attorney can give you more detail on these wage assignments, which are also commonly called wage garnishments.

How can I avoid paying alimony in California?

It may be impossible for you to avoid paying alimony based on the circumstances of your case. However, because judges look at several factors in deciding whether to award one spouse support, you may be able to show that your spouse is capable of supporting him- or herself – and in that case, the judge is unlikely to order it. 

If you quit your job (or get yourself fired) to avoid paying alimony, it’s likely going to backfire on you. The court won’t look at the personal decisions you made and let you avoid paying if you’re capable of doing so (which was evidenced by you having and holding a job prior to quitting or purposely getting fired).

The best way to avoid paying alimony is to reach an agreement with your spouse that he or she will not request it. You can also encourage your spouse to get a job and become self-sustaining while you’re still married. In that case, even if your spouse doesn’t make as much as you do, the court will likely order a lower alimony payment than it would if your spouse didn’t work at all.

Related: If I quit my job, do I still have to pay alimony?

When can I stop making spousal support payments?

Your obligation to pay alimony automatically ends when the order expires or when the receiving party gets married to someone else. You can also petition the judge to change your spousal support order if your circumstances have changed significantly – such as when you’ve lost your job, or your ex-spouse gets a new job earning more money.

Do I have to pay alimony if my ex-spouse is living with someone?

If your ex-spouse moves in with someone while you’re paying alimony, you can petition the court to change your spousal support order. His or her circumstances have changed – usually the person living with the supported spouse can be expected to share expenses – so the court may lower or stop your alimony payments altogether.

Do You Need to Talk to a Lawyer About Whether You Have to Pay Alimony?

If you’re not sure whether you’ll have to pay alimony – or if you think you may be eligible to receive it – we can help you. Call us at 310-820-3500 for a free consultation with a Los Angeles divorce attorney today. We’ll be happy to answer your questions and start building a strategy that gets you the best possible outcome.