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California Spousal Support or Alimony Law

In California, courts may order monthly alimony or spousal support payments. Spouses may agree on support payments in their settlement agreement. Spousal support helps relieve a lower-income spouse of financial burdens after a divorce or legal separation. California spousal support laws vary in the amount and duration of support ordered. This article reviews the basics of California spousal support (or alimony) laws.

FindLaw also provides state-specific links to alimony court forms and instructions.

Factors in Spousal Support Orders

California law doesn’t guarantee spousal support. Family law courts consider various factors, called "4320 Factors," when deciding if a spouse deserves alimony. These factors can include:

  • Each spouse's age and overall health
  • The marital standard of living
  • Each spouse's earning ability based on the job market and the spouse's marketable skills
  • Whether the lower-earning spouse lost earning capacity due to time out of the job market for child care
  • The duration of the marriage
  • Whether the supported spouse can be gainfully employed without unduly interfering with the best interest of the children
  • Whether the supporting spouse can reasonably pay spousal support without affecting their ability to pay child support or other obligations
  • Other factors the judge believes may affect the support order

Domestic Violence and Spousal Support

In California, anyone convicted of felony domestic violence against their spouse or children (including felony sexual assault, attempted murder, or homicide) may not receive spousal support. The injured spouse will receive 100% of their community property in any settlement.

Types of Alimony

California does not distinguish between marriage and domestic partnership for spousal support purposes. Spousal support laws apply to domestic partnerships and cohabitation as well as marriage. Married couples and registered domestic partners may request alimony during the divorce process. California has two basic types of spousal support: temporary and permanent.

Temporary Alimony

If one spouse needs financial assistance during the divorce process, they can request a court order for temporary spousal support. The judge considers the requesting spouse’s needs and the other spouse’s ability to pay. A common formula is 40% of the higher earner's net monthly income minus 50% of the lower earner's net monthly income. Temporary alimony only lasts through the divorce proceedings.

Permanent Alimony

Despite the name, permanent alimony is really long-term spousal support. There are very few situations where a judge will order permanent spousal support payments. In very long-term marriages where the spouse is older and becoming self-sufficient is unlikely, or if there are health issues making employment difficult, courts may order permanent spousal support.

Otherwise, judges order long-term spousal support in cases where:

  • The marriage lasted more than a certain amount of time (over 10 years)
  • One spouse earns significantly more than the other

Long-term support depends on the length of the marriage. For marriages less than 10 years, support lasts half the length of the marriage. Support ends when the payee spouse is self-supporting, remarries, or dies. The judge may require proof that the supported spouse is attempting to find work or education. This is also called "rehabilitative alimony."

Lump-Sum Alimony

Judges may order a lump-sum payment instead of a property settlement. Rather than divide the marital property, one spouse may receive the value in a one-time payment.

Reimbursement Alimony

Despite the name, reimbursement alimony is not a type of support. A provision of California's community property law allows a spouse's contributions to their partner's education or career to be paid back during the property settlement. It is not part of the alimony payment.

See Are You Entitled to Alimony (Spousal Support)? to find out if you're eligible.

Enforcing Spousal Support

Judges usually sign an earnings assignment when entering a support order. An earnings assignment or wage garnishment instructs the paying spouse's employer to take alimony and child support out of their wages. The employer pays child support first. Child support goes to the state disbursement unit and then to the parent. Alimony goes directly to the receiving spouse.

If the paying spouse does not have a full-time job, or the recipient spouse prefers to receive payment directly, they can ask that the earnings assignment be "stayed" or put on hold. The judge will reactivate it if the paying spouse falls behind on payments.

Unmarried Couples

Property rights and support payments for unmarried couples can be complex. "Palimony" refers to support payments that can be made to unmarried partners following a breakup. Not all states allow for such payments, but they have been permitted in California ever since a 1976 decision in the state Supreme Court. In these instances, requests for support based on premarital cohabitation are not made through the family law courts because it's not part of a divorce proceeding. Instead, these claims are filed as general civil actions, usually in conjunction with breach of contract or even implied partnership claims, among others.

It's also important to note that California law doesn't recognize common-law marriage. However, California courts could recognize a common law marriage if it was validly created in another state under its laws.

Related Resources

Learn More About Spousal Support From a Family Law Attorney

If you need financial assistance during or after a divorce, you need some type of alimony. California alimony laws are confusing for the average person, and you need help understanding your rights. Talk to a California divorce attorney for legal advice about your case.

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