What does “Spousal Support” Mean?

Spousal support, (formerly known as “alimony”), refers to the obligation of one party in a marriage or domestic partnership to provide support to their former spouse or partner. California Family Code Section 4320 lays out numerous factors by which a court is mandated to award spousal support. These factors include:

  • Duration of marriage
  • Available resources (including assets and income) of the person seeking spousal support
  • Ability of the other party to provide resources to the supported spouse
  • The reasonable needs and lifestyle requirements of the supported spouse

Spousal support is usually based on how much the supported spouse believes she needs, (for purposes of this post, I’ll use “he” for supporting spouse and “she” for supported spouse), and how much the supporting spouse believes he can pay. Somewhere between these two figures, a final number is determined.

In general, the issue of spousal support revolves around the style of living established during the marriage or domestic partnership. Let’s use this hypothetical example to explain:

Ron is a cardiologist married to Sheila, a schoolteacher. When they first got married, they agreed Sheila would be a stay-at-home mom. She quit her job, thus depriving herself of an income and moved from a rental apartment to an expensive house in La Jolla. During the course of their marriage, Sheila established a very comfortable lifestyle in their exclusive neighborhood. She
had friends there and the couple sent their two children to a costly, local private school.

At some point, Ron and Sheila decide to separate. Sheila is unable to maintain this lifestyle on her own, nor can she realistically expect to do so even if she gets a job. Thus, under the law, she is reasonably entitled to spousal support that will help her live the same style of life to which she’s become accustomed. The question, of course, is how much and for how long? At this point, Ron will be obligated to either accept the terms of spousal support Sheila requests or to demonstrate (a) that he’s unable to make such payments or (b) that his separated spouse is over-inflating her anticipated expenses and/or understating her expected income and resources. If the parties can’t agree on a figure, the issue goes before a Family Court judge.

There’s a common misconception that you can only get spousal support if you’ve been married or in a domestic partnership for a certain amount of time. The truth is, anyone can assert an entitlement to spousal support, no matter how long the marriage/partnership lasted. Typically, the Court’s reasoning goes as follows:

  • A marriage of 10 years or more: Unless the two parties can agree on a date to terminate
    spousal support, the obligation to pay support will continue until the supporting party can
    convince a court that this obligation should come to an end (if, for instance, his ex-wife
    now earns enough to support herself).
  • A marriage of less than 10 years: The two parties can agree on a date of termination for
    spousal support or the Court has some discretion to order a termination date. While this is
    not absolute, the unwritten practice is that the obligation lasts for roughly half the length
    of the marriage.

In my years of practice in this field of law, I’ve encountered many supporting spouses who feel aggravated by the ongoing obligation to support their ex-spouse. I try to lessen the aggravation somewhat by reminding them that, unlike child support, spousal support can be claimed as a deduction on their income taxes and that the supported party has to report what they receive as
income on their taxes. A silver lining? Maybe just a little.

Wondering what you might face should your spouse or partner file for a dissolution of marriage/partnership or legal separation? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from bankruptcy, family law and estate planning to traffic violations and landlord/tenant disputes.

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