Alimony 101


Divorce is never easy, even when it’s a mutual agreement between husband and wife. In addition to emotional distress, financial concerns have a big impact on both parties. One of the biggest issues that California couples face is alimony and how to work out an agreement that benefits both parties. If you’re going through a divorce, this information will help you understand alimony laws in California.

What Is Alimony?

Alimony, also called spousal support in California Family Courts, is a legal obligation placed on a person to provide financial support to his or her spouse before or after marital separation or divorce. As a general rule, alimony is usually awarded to the “dependent spouse”, either husband or wife, who was financially dependent on the other spouse for maintenance and support during the marriage. Alimony payments may be awarded as a lump sum or on a continuing basis and vary greatly based on complex factors of each divorce case.

California divorce laws allow the court to order temporary alimony before there’s a final judgment, and retroactive alimony that can go back as far as the filing of the petition for divorce or legal separation.

How Is Alimony Determined In California?

When calculating income to determine alimony, the court usually uses the last twelve months of income as a benchmark. This typically represents a fair calculation for both parties, but there are no hard and fast rules. The court can go back longer or shorter than twelve months depending on divorce circumstances.

Temporary Alimony

The fundamental purpose of temporary alimony is to maintain the status quo while going through the divorce process. Temporary alimony guidelines use the same computer program that’s used for California child support. This program determines the net disposable income of the highest earning spouse and calculates alimony on a temporary basis, however the court does have final discretion. A black-and-white formula isn’t used in every case, but it’s unlikely that the court will diverge from the computer formula unless there’s persuasive evidence. California Family Code 4320 does not allow this computer program to be used to calculate permanent alimony.

Permanent Alimony

Permanent alimony is calculated differently than temporary alimony. The biggest difference is that the court can not use the computer program to determine the amount. Final alimony orders at the time of judgment must be based on Family Code 4320 to determine the standard of living that was established during the marriage or domestic partnership.

These factors include:

  • The age and health of both people
  • Current debts and property
  • The length of the marriage
  • What each person needs based on the standard of living during the marriage
  • What each person can pay (including earnings and earning capacity) to keep the same standard of living they had during the marriage
  • Whether having a job would make it too hard to take care of the children (dependent spouse)
  • Whether one spouse helped the other get an education, training, career, or professional license during the marriage
  • Whether there was any domestic violence reported during the marriage
  • Whether one spouse’s career was affected by unemployment or by taking care of the children or home
  • The tax impact of spousal support

Once a decision has been reached by the court, the alimony or spousal support order then becomes part of your final divorce or legal separation judgment. Most alimony orders will continue for one half the duration of the marriage in short-term marriages (less than 10 years), or until the death of either spouse or remarriage of the spouse receiving support.