Alimony—known as spousal support in California law—is intended to provide some financial assistance for a spouse who needs it during the divorce process and for a period of time after the final divorce (or "dissolution of marriage"). If you're planning to get divorced or are already in the process, you and your spouse may agree (in writing) that one of you will pay the other a certain amount of support for a certain amount of time. Otherwise, any time a spouse requests alimony as part of the process of filing for divorce in California, the judge will have to decide whether to grant that request—and, if so, how much support to award.
Even if you hope to reach a settlement agreement with your spouse, you should understand how alimony works in California and the rules judges must follow when they make spousal support decisions.
Basically, there are two kinds of alimony in California:
All alimony is based on one spouse's need for support and the other spouse's ability to pay. Beyond that fundamental principle, the rules are different for temporary and long-term spousal support, including so-called rehabilitative alimony.
Judges may order one spouse to pay temporary spousal support while the legal divorce process is underway. California's limitations on spousal support in cases of domestic violence (discussed below) apply to temporary alimony. (Cal. Fam. Code § 3600 (2022).)
Typically, temporary alimony continues until the divorce is final. But the judge may grant a request to change or modify the support if there's a good reason to do that. (Cal. Fam. Code § 3603 (2022).)
As part of a final judgment in a dissolution of marriage or legal separation, the judge may order one spouse to pay support for the other spouse for a period of time and in an amount that the judge believes is fair and reasonable under the circumstances (more below on those circumstances).
When awarding long-term spousal support, judges will usually give the recipients a warning that they should try to become self-supporting. That's why this often called "rehabilitative alimony"—because it's meant to give recipients time to adjust and obtain whatever education, training, and work experience they need to get to the point where they can support themselves.
Toward that goal, judges may include various provisions in their orders. For example:
(Cal. Fam. Code §§ 4330, 4331, 4334 (2022).)
You may have read or heard about a type of spousal support in California called reimbursement support. There's actually no such thing. When California judges are deciding how much spousal support to award, they'll consider the supported spouse's contributions to the other spouse's education or career. But that's only one among many factors that go into the overall decision-making on alimony (more on that below).
The confusion on this issue may have come from a reimbursement provision in California law on dividing community property in divorce. That law requires judges to order that a couple's community estate be reimbursed for any contributions a spouse made to the other spouse's education or training, when those contributions significantly enhanced the other spouse's earning capacity. But that reimbursement might be reduced or offset under some circumstances. And the dollar value of the reimbursement gets counted as part of the community property that will later be divided between the spouses—it doesn't go directly to one spouse as a kind of support. (Cal. Fam C § 2641 (2022).)
The rules for deciding who will pay alimony, how much the payments will be, and how long they're expected to last are different for temporary and permanent spousal support.
California laws on spousal support are gender neutral—either spouse may request support. If one spouse needs financial support and the other can afford to pay it, the judge will order the higher-earning spouse to pay alimony to the lower-earning spouse, regardless of their genders.
When considering whether a spouse needs temporary alimony, California courts have found that the amount of support should be based on what's necessary to maintain the standard of living that the couple enjoyed during their marriage.
Of course, it's more expensive to maintain two households than a shared one. So in many cases, both spouses won't be able to keep up their previous living standard. But the idea behind temporary alimony is to maintain the status quo—as much as possible—until the divorce is final.
The courts in many California counties use a formula as a guideline for calculating the amount of temporary spousal support. These guidelines vary, but one common formula for the monthly amount of support is 40% of the high earner's net monthly income minus 50% of the low earner's net monthly income. For example, if Spouse A earns $6,000 a month and Spouse B earns $3,000 a month, temporary spousal support would be $900 a month (40% of $6,000 = $2,400; 50% of $3,000 = $1,500; $2,400 − $1,500 = $900).
Even in courts that use a temporary alimony guideline, the judge may award a different amount of support based on the specific circumstances.
California doesn't use a "calculator" for determining the amount of long-term spousal support. Instead, judges must decide how much to award after they've considered all of the following circumstances:
(Cal. Fam. Code § 4320 (2022).)
Other than the fact that temporary alimony stops when the divorce is final, there's no hard-and-fast rule in California on how long spousal support will last. But one of the factors that judges must consider when awarding long-term alimony is the goal that the recipient should be self-supporting within "a reasonable amount of time."
The law goes on to explain that a reasonable amount of time generally means half the length of the marriage (except in long-term marriages, as discussed below). For instance, if one spouse needed support after an eight-year marriage, alimony would typically last four years. But judges may decide to order spousal support for a shorter or longer period than that halfway standard, depending on the individual circumstances. (Cal. Fam. Code § 4320(l) (2022).)
Regardless of the date set for ending spousal support in the court order, alimony stops when the recipient remarries or either spouse dies. But a couple may set any other end date in their settlement agreement. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 4335, 4337 (2022).)
Although some people refer to "permanent alimony," it's very rare that spousal support is actually permanent, even after relatively long-term marriages.
Under California law, when a couple gets divorced after a marriage "of long duration," the court retains jurisdiction indefinitely over the issue of spousal support (unless the couple's settlement agreement or the judge's order specifically provided otherwise). That means the judge will continue to have the legal authority to extend, reinstate, or adjust the amount of alimony. It also means that the judge doesn't have to warn the recipient about the need to become self-supporting if that wouldn't be appropriate under the circumstances. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 4330(b), 4336(a) (2022).)
The law presumes that any marriage lasting at least 10 years counts as lengthy (the source of the mythical 10-year rule). But even if a couple was married for less than 10 years, a judge may find that their marriage qualifies for indefinite jurisdiction because of the specific circumstances. (Cal. Fam. Code § 4336(b) (2022).)
California's rule on indefinite jurisdiction does not necessarily mean that support will continue until death, just because a couple had a long-term marriage. Nor does it mean that the judge won't expect the recipient to take steps toward the goal of becoming self-supporting—unless that's not feasible given the spouse's age, physical and mental health, or disability.
Also, it's worth pointing out that regardless of the length of the marriage, spousal support in California automatically ends when the supported spouse remarries, unless the couple had a written agreement that it would not end. The obligation to pay alimony also ends when either spouse dies, which means that a deceased spouse's estate won't be responsible for continuing support payments. (Cal. Fam. Code § 4337 (2022).)
Unless a couple specifically agreed that alimony may not be modified, judges may change or end spousal support if that's necessary because there's been a change of circumstances. (Cal. Fam. Code § 3651 (2022); In re Marriage of Minkin, 11 Cal.App.5th 939 (Cal. Ct. App. 2017).)
If you believe that changed circumstances warrant a modification of spousal support that you're receiving or paying, you may file a motion (or formal request) with the court. California offers a simplified procedure for requesting a modification of a support order (by filing Form FL-390) that's intended to be used by people without lawyers. But you should know that in most situations, unless you and your spouse have an agreement about the proposed changes, spousal support modification proceedings involve complicated legal issues that are best handled by an experienced family law attorney.
When judges issue spousal support orders, they will dictate how the payments should be made. Typically, the judge will order periodic support payments—often through an income withholding order to the paying spouse's employer.
But what if the paying spouse is self-employed? In appropriate situations, California law allows judges to order the paying spouse to provide some reasonable method of security for the payment of alimony. For example, a judge might order that spouse to establish a trust fund for alimony payments. (Cal. Fam. Code § 4339 (2022).)
Without that kind of security, when a spouse is behind with alimony payments or simply refuses to pay, the supported spouse will have to go back to court to ask a judge to enforce the spousal support order.
In some cases, judges will allow spousal support to be paid in a lump sum (in cash or property) rather than periodic payments. This option eliminates any worries about getting the periodic payments, and both spouses might prefer the simplicity. But it means neither of them will be able to request a change in the alimony award later on.
If your divorce was final before 2019, the paying spouse may continue to deduct alimony payments for purposes of federal income taxes, and the recipient spouse must report those payments as income. However, for all couples who divorced in 2019 and beyond, the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated any tax deduction or income reporting requirements for spousal support. That means the Internal Revenue Service won't count spousal support payments as income for the recipient, and the paying spouse won't get the deduction.
However, the change applies only to federal income taxes. California tax law still requires recipients to include spousal support payments as income on their state tax returns, and paying spouses may deduct the payments from income on their own state returns.
The difference between federal and state tax law for Californians can complicate settlement negotiations over the issue of spousal support, because it makes it more difficult to figure out the overall tax consequences. If you have any questions about this issue, you should speak with a California family lawyer or tax expert.
Along with the requirement that judges will consider a history of domestic violence when they're making decisions about spousal support, California law prohibits alimony for anyone who has been convicted of a recent felony for domestic violence or sexual violence against their spouse, or of attempting to murder their spouse. The law also presumes that spousal support shouldn't be awarded to anyone recently convicted of a misdemeanor for domestic violence or certain other crimes against a spouse, but the judge may consider other circumstances that would counter that presumption—such as the convicted spouse's history as a domestic violence victim. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 4324, 4324.5, 4325 (2022).)