Understanding and Calculating Alimony in California

Learn about the kinds of spousal support available in California, how judges decide the amount of alimony and how long it will last, and whether you can change the award later.

By , Legal Editor

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.

Types of Spousal Support in California

Basically, there are two kinds of alimony in California:

  • temporary support for a spouse during the divorce process, and
  • long-term spousal support after the divorce is final, including so-called rehabilitative alimony.

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.

Temporary Spousal Support

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 (2023).)

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 (2023).)

Long-Term Spousal Support

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:

  • Vocational evaluations. The judge may order the recipient to undergo an evaluation with a vocational training counselor, to assess that spouse's ability to get the kind of job that will provide the same standard of living the couple had during the marriage.
  • Conditions that will end support. Judges may also set certain conditions on long-term spousal support. For instance, the order might state that alimony will end when the recipient is no longer attending college or a vocational training program.
  • Alimony step-downs. Sometimes, the amount of support will decrease at scheduled times, based on evidence that the supported spouse is expected to be earning more—another way of encouraging (or prodding) recipients along the path toward self-sufficiency.
  • Reservation of jurisdiction. Long-term alimony awards usually will set a time when support will end, although the judge may reserve "jurisdiction" (or legal authority) to issue further orders over the issue in the future. That way, if something unexpected happens to derail a spouse's ability to be self-supporting, the judge may make changes that are appropriate and fair.

(Cal. Fam. Code §§ 4330, 4331, 4334 (2023).)

The Myth of "Reimbursement Alimony" in California

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 (2023).)

How Do Judges Determine Spousal Support in California?

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.

Who Pays 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.

How Is Temporary Alimony Calculated in California?

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.

Factors for Determining Long-Term Spousal Support

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:

  • each spouse's needs, based on the standard of living they had during the marriage
  • each spouse's ability to earn enough to maintain that standard of living, taking into account their marketable skills, the job market for those skills, how much time and training the supported spouse would need to develop those skills, and how much that spouse's earning capacity was reduced because of time taken out of the job market to care for the children and home during the marriage
  • the supporting spouse's ability to pay alimony
  • the goal that the alimony recipient should become self-supporting within a reasonable period of time (more on that below)
  • the supported spouse's ability to be gainfully employed without unduly interfering with the interests of children in that spouse's physical custody
  • each spouse's age and health
  • each spouse's debts and assets, including their separate property
  • how long the marriage lasted
  • how much the supported spouse contributed to the other's educational degree or professional license during the marriage
  • whether there's documented history of domestic violence against either party or the children
  • the tax consequences of spousal support (more on that below)
  • the balance of hardships to each spouse, and
  • any other factors the judge believes should be considered, based on what's fair.

(Cal. Fam. Code § 4320 (2023).)

California's Restrictions on Spousal Support for Domestic Abusers

In addition to requiring that judges consider any history of domestic violence when deciding 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 (2023).)

How Long Does Alimony Last in California?

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) (2023).)

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 (2023).)

Does California Allow Permanent Alimony?

Although some people refer to "permanent alimony," it's very rare that spousal support is actually permanent, even after relatively long-term marriages.

Indefinite Jurisdiction Over Spousal Support After Lengthy 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.

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 §§ 4330(b), 4336 (2023).)

Indefinite Jurisdiction Doesn't Mean Permanent Alimony

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. It simply means that the judge has the authority to reassess the support order in the future, in light of the current situation.

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 (2023).)

How to Modify Spousal Support

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 (2023); 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.

Paying and Collecting Spousal Support

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 (2023).)

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.

When you don't have an earnings assignment order or security for spousal support, you have different options for trying to collect spousal support in California, including:

  • If your ex is also paying you child support, you can ask your local child support agency for help collecting the spousal support. These agencies have many ways of collecting overdue support, including intercepting tax refunds and seizing the money from bank accounts.
  • You can ask the court to issue a new earnings assignment order. If you want the unpaid support (known as "arrearages" or "arrears") taken out of your ex's paycheck in addition to future payments, you'll also need to apply for an official determination of how much your ex owes in arrearages. (The child support agency will do this for you if it's involved in your case.)
  • You may file a request with the court for a writ of execution, which will direct the sheriff to take the money from your ex's bank account or other property. California law allows enforcement of spousal support orders by writ of execution without prior court approval. (Cal. Fam. Code § 5100 (2023).)
  • You may file a motion to have your ex found in contempt of court for failing to obey the order to pay spousal support. A finding of contempt could lead to a requirement to perform community service, fines, or even jail time. But it can be complicated to prove your case without a lawyer's help. (Cal. Fam. Code § 290; Cal. Code Civ. Proc. § 1218 (2023).)

Taxes and Spousal Support

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.

Getting Help With Spousal Support

If you and your spouse can't agree about alimony in your divorce, you might get help resolving your differences through mediation. But if mediation isn't an option or doesn't work, consider speaking with a family law attorney who can evaluate your case and help you convince a judge of your position on the issue. The same is true if one of you wants to change the existing spousal support order, but you can't reach an agreement on a modification.

As mentioned above, your local child support agency will help collect spousal support if you're also receiving child support. This assistance is free, except for a small annual service fee (currently $35). If you don't qualify for the agency's services, you might get help with earnings assignment orders from your local court's self-help center or family law facilitator. Otherwise, a California family lawyer can explain the best methods for enforcing spousal support in your situation.