image of couple discussing divorce

What is Spousal Support in California?

Understanding California Spousal Support

If you find yourself entangled in a California spousal support case, you may not understand the subtleties of this type of legal agreement. Spousal support awards are not meant as punitive damages — they simply aim to compensate one spouse fairly and reasonably if that spouse suffers significant loss of marital income (the income, and subsequent standard of living, enjoyed by both spouses during their time as a couple). This support can prove especially crucial for a spouse who has never worked or has spent years away from the workplace. Spousal support is dealt with as a separate issue from other divorce-related concerns such as division of property, child support, and child custody.

Types of Spousal Support

The three primary categories of spousal support in California include temporary, permanent, and rehabilitative support. Let’s look at the key differences in these categories.

  • Temporary support – In temporary support, the higher-earning spouse makes payments to help the lower-earning spouse get through the financial burdens created by loss of income and other expenses during the course of the divorce case. Once the divorce case reaches its conclusion, this support terminates.
  • Permanent support – Permanent support takes the place of temporary support (if so ordered) as part of the final divorce agreement. This long-term form of support requires the higher-earning spouse to make regular payments to the lower-earning spouse so that spouse can continue to maintain a pre-divorce standard of living.
  • Rehabilitative support – Rehabilitative support commonly applies in cases where one spouse left the workforce or reduced their work hours to take care of the children. It is awarded as a kind of stopgap compensation on the understanding that the recipient spouse will make a good faith effort to return to the work force and eventually become financially independent.

California divorce courts may also award lump-sum or reimbursement support. In lump-sum support, the alimony is paid in a single payment instead of spread out over a long-term schedule. In reimbursement support, the high-earning spouse makes payments to help fund career training and education for the lower-earning spouse’s return to financial independence.

The Spousal Support Process

California spouses must request and obtain formal support through a court case that results in a written court order. (If one spouse gives money to another spouse for support purposes before a written court order has made such payment mandatory, that money may not be officially credited toward the alimony payments.) While divorce commonly serves as the grounds for a spousal support request, a court may also award it on the grounds of domestic violence, legal separation, or the annulment of a marriage. Domestic partners may also receive partner support by pursuing the same basic process.

Determining Spousal Support Awards

Different local courts in California rely on their own specific formulas for calculating the amount of temporary spousal support to be awarded in a divorce case. Your local court can clarify how their particular formula determines temporary spousal support.

The divorce court will consider a number of factors when calculating the amount of permanent support awarded to a spouse. According to California Code Section 4320, these factors may include such basic data as the length of the marriage, the health and age of each spouse, and each spouse’s income. The court also considers the distribution of income, child care, possessions, and debts during the marriage. If it was agreed that one spouse would support the other during the marriage while the other spouse cared for the children, these factors must figure into the award determination as well. The non-working spouse may not be able to re-enter the job market at a level that would compensate for the loss of marital income, especially if it impacts the spouse’s ability to continue watching over the kids.

Under certain circumstances, one spouse or the other can ask the court to change or end the spousal support payment amount or schedule. This usually requires the spouse to show a significant change such as a spouse no longer needing the support, becoming unable to make the ordered payments due to loss of income, or not making a legitimate effort to become self-sustaining.