Divorcing your spouse is never easy, regardless of who initiated the separation. Aside from the emotional turmoil, financial strain can add tension to an already difficult situation. To reduce the uncertainty, it’s important to understand how spousal support works. That way, you and your spouse can plan ahead and make a smooth transition to separate households.

What is Spousal Support?

Spousal support (or partner support in a domestic partnership) is a monthly amount that one spouse pays the other. It’s designed to assist one spouse financially during or after the separation or divorce. Spousal support is gender neutral and completely based on need.

You may have heard the term alimony, which essentially means the same thing as spousal support. In California, we use the term spousal support. However, other states do use the term alimony, as does the IRS.

Is Spousal Support Decided by a Judge?

It doesn’t have to be. You can agree to a spousal support order on your own. By agreeing and signing a written agreement (a stipulation), you don’t have to go in front of a judge and lose control over the decision.

Before you sign an agreement, you should understand how spousal support works and what your rights are. That way, when you write and sign your agreement, you’re fully informed.

To do that, let’s talk next about how the court assesses spousal support.

Spousal support doesn’t have to be determined by a judge. You and your spouse can work it out together.

How Does the Court Determine Spousal Support?

The Court takes many factors into consideration before ordering spousal support. The goal is to maintain the same quality of life the spouse had before the separation, or as close to it as possible. The judge will refer to CA Family Code 4320 to determine spousal support. Here are some of the key considerations:

  • the primary income generator’s income
  • the skill set of the receiving partner and its marketability
  • how capable the partner is of earning income and to what extent income can be earned
  • to what extent the partner’s earning ability was hindered during the relationship
  • to what extent the partner contributed to the education or career enhancement
  • the affect of any decisions on children of the marriage
  • the length of the marriage/ partnership
  • any history of domestic violence

The primary goal of spousal support is to grant the partner time to arrange for or learn the skills to support themselves after the separation.  California law makes a general statement that spousal support should be administered for a reasonable amount of time. However, it also says that a judge can decide the length of spousal support based upon the factors above. This is important to note, as the judge has a fair amount of latitude. For example, the judge could require permanent spousal support depending on the circumstances.

You can use the list of considerations from California law as a guide to develop a spousal support arrangement that feels fair to both of you.

When Does Spousal Support Begin?

You can request spousal support while your case is ongoing, since many couples separate into different households during the divorce process. This is called a temporary spousal support order. Or, you can request that support begins once the divorce or legal separation becomes final – referred to as a permanent spousal support order.

How to Change Spousal Support

There must be a change in circumstances to modify a support order. Generally, these circumstances come down to two instances:

  1. The spouse making payments has an employment change.
  2. The spouse receiving payments is not making an effort to become self-sufficient.

If you’re the one paying spousal support and you become unemployed, you need to file a Request for Order (RFO) to modify the support amount. If you don’t, you’re still responsible for the amount, even if you have no source of income.  It’s critical to report changes as soon as possible.

How to End Spousal Support

The end of spousal support occurs in one of three scenarios.  

  1. A judge and/or court order deems the spousal support unnecessary and ends the spousal support order.  
  2. The one receiving spousal support remarries.  
  3. One of the spouses dies, either the recipient or the one making payments.

If spousal support is ordered indefinitely, these three factors are typically the only ways to nullify the order, unless a change of circumstances takes place.

Check out the spousal support information page on the California Courts website as a starting point. If you find the process to be challenging or you’d rather write your own spousal support order, be sure to consult an experienced divorce mediator or a family law attorney.