Spousal Support in California

Dec 13, 2021

Nowhere is the phrase, “What’s mine is yours,” more applicable than while you are married. Here, anything one partner earns belongs to both, and so (at least legally) it doesn’t matter if one makes more than the other. You are both joint owners of it all. 

But what happens if you get divorced? Where does this imbalance leave a lower earning spouse? Are they out of luck, now that they aren’t hitched to their higher earning counterpart? 

According to California family law, no. 

In these situations, California judges will often order the higher earning spouse to make what’s known as “spousal support payments,” which are designed to help a lower earning spouse transition back into the workforce, after divorce.

Here’s what you need to know about spousal support in California, and how the Provinziano team can help you navigate this situation.  


What is Spousal Support?

Spousal support, (also known as “alimony” or “spousal maintenance”) are payments a judge requires one spouse to make to the other, to help cover their needs after a divorce, legal separation, or annulment. 

This money is not automatically granted for every divorce. Instead, payments are weighed based on need, and a payer’s ability to provide support. These amounts can be estimated using a California spousal support calculator, or by talking to an experienced family law attorney.


Types of Spousal Support 

Like most things in divorce, spousal support is not a “one size fits all” situation. Different needs require different solutions, which is why there are several different types of spousal support in California. These include: 

  1. Temporary Spousal Support
  2. Rehabilitative Spousal Support
  3. Permanent Spousal Support 
  4. Reimbursement Spousal Support

Here’s a closer look at each, and when the court might use them.


1. Temporary Spousal Support

Divorce is not a quick process. If one spouse needs help, it’s often not feasible for them to wait months—or even years—for a case to resolve. This is where temporary support comes into play. 

Temporary spousal support bridges the gap between “together” and “final verdict,” and is designed to cover an individual’s needs until a more permanent solution can be reached.


2. Rehabilitative Spousal Support

In California, rehabilitative spousal support is the most common type. These payments are often granted in situations where one spouse gave up valuable employment or education opportunities, in order to stay home with children.  

The goal of rehabilitative payments is to get the supported spouse back on their feet, and to help provide for their needs until they are able to regain lost experience.

For marriages that lasted less than ten years, these payments will generally last for half the length of the marriage. Unions that last longer than ten years are considered “long term” marriages. In these situations, spousal support might be assigned to last indefinitely, or even permanently. 


3. Permanent Spousal Support

Permanent spousal support is rare—even for long term marriages. This type of support is called “permanent,” because it does not have a set expiration date, and will last until the paying spouse can either prove there has been a significant change in circumstance, or the supported spouse dies. 

In California, courts will typically only award permanent support if there is something preventing a spouse from re-entering the workforce (for example, old age, illness, or injury). 


4. Reimbursement Spousal Support

Compared to other jurisdictions, California is unique, in that it also allows individuals to request reimbursement support. 

This type of support typically occurs when one spouse worked to financially support the other’s education (or career training), while they were married. Under these circumstances, California courts would allow that individual to recoup those funds, in addition to other support.  

The logic behind this is that—while they were married—any effort on behalf of either spouse went toward helping the family, as a whole. However, only the spouse who received the education gets to keep that benefit, once the couple divorces. The other is left with nothing to show for their efforts. 

Reimbursement spousal support attempts to bridge this gap, and ensure both spouses receive the benefit they both worked for.


Factors That Influence Spousal Support in California 

Spousal support is not awarded in every case. Instead, these payments are required in situations where one spouse needs the support, and the other is capable of providing it. 

If those two elements are met, then the court will look at a number of individualized factors, to determine how much is appropriate in your situation.

Some of these factors include: 

  • Each spouse’s earning capacity. 
  • Each spouse’s debts and assets (including separate property).
  • Each spouse’s age and health. 
  • Whether one spouse supported the other’s education or training.
  • The length of the marriage. 
  • The standard of living, while married. 
  • The paying spouse’s ability to make payments.  
  • The supported spouse’s ability to become employed (without interfering with the care of minor children). 
  • The balance of hardships to both parties. 
  • Any tax consequences to either party. 
  • Any history of domestic violence or criminal convictions.

This list is not exhaustive, and the court can consider any other facts it thinks might be relevant to the decision. 

We should also note that in California, considerations of spousal support are absolutely gender neutral. Payments are based on need, alone, and are open to same sex couples and other non-traditional family units just as much as they are for the stay at home mom. 


Enforcing Spousal Support in California 

Similar to child support payments, spousal support is not optional. When included in your divorce order, you will be expected to pay this, regardless of whether or not you believe it’s actually necessary. 

The most common way to ensure payments is through wage garnishment. A wage garnishment is an order that goes to a payer’s employer, which requires them to divert support funds before depositing anything into the payer’s account. (Wage garnishment is also used for child support payments.)  

Failure to make timely and full spousal support payments can have serious financial and legal consequences. For example, the court may: 

  • Put a lien on real property and bank accounts;  
  • Intercept tax refunds, lottery winnings, unemployment, or other benefits; or, 
  • Suspend your driver’s license, business certifications, and sporting licenses.

In extreme cases, failure to pay could even result in contempt of court. 


When Does Spousal Support End? 

The answer to this question largely depends on what type of support your judge ordered. 

If the order is temporary, then support will likely last for the duration of your case, (when your judge will present a more long-term solution). Rehabilitative payments, on the other hand, should last until the date specified in your order, and permanent payments until… well… forever.

This is, of course, unless something happens to trigger an early termination. 


Early Termination of Spousal Support 

In California, two situations trigger the early termination of spousal support as a matter of law (which essentially means “automatically”). These two scenarios occur when: 

  1. A dependent spouse remarries; or
  2. Either spouse dies. 

In either of these situations, there is no need for an additional court order; the spousal support will terminate automatically. (Though, it’s always a good idea to double check, if you’re the paying spouse, since you don’t want to risk being accused of contempt.) 

Another common relationship status is cohabitation (i.e. living with a partner, but not actually marrying them). In California, cohabitation does not automatically trigger the end of spousal support, as a matter of law. However, if a dependent spouse chooses to cohabitate, then a paying spouse would have a strong argument for decreased spousal support, or even a reservation of spousal support. 


Reservation of Spousal Support 

While the court may choose to terminate spousal support, it’s also possible for them to make a reservation of spousal support. 

A reservation of spousal support is similar to pushing the pause button on support. In this scenario, spousal support payments might discontinue for a time, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be over forever. 

For example, the court may consider reserving spousal support payments, if: 

  • A paying spouse loses their job; 
  • A dependent spouse gets a job; 
  • A dependent spouse cohabitates with a new partner; or,
  • A paying spouse makes a lump-sum payment of spousal support. 

As a general rule, it’s always best to speak to your trusty family law attorney, before you stop making payments. 


Spousal Support Attorneys in California

While married, you and your spouse own everything as equal partners. When one profits, so does the other, and vice versa, and this shouldn’t be any different, if you ever get divorced. 

For more questions about spousal support in California—or for information on our California spousal support calculator—we want to hear from you. Call Provinziano & Associates at (310) 820-3500, or get in touch online, and let us help you get the support you need.