Guide to Spousal Support in California
Table of Contents
- How does spousal support work in California?
- How courts set amounts
- How long will long-term support last?
- How to change amounts
- How to pay
- Payments & taxes
While couples are married, they share everything, including bank accounts. When they divorce, they split assets and debts equally. But one partner may be unable to live a life that’s become habitual after the split. Spousal support (also called alimony) can help.
California courts are guided by codified rules when determining spousal support amounts and lengths. Couples wanting to change spousal support amounts must follow those same rules, which isn’t easy.
Keep reading to find out how spousal support works within the state and what you can do to ensure that your split is fair to both parties.
How does spousal support work in California?
A court-ordered payment one spouse makes to the other is spousal support, also known as alimony. These payments are designed to cover expenses incurred by a spouse who doesn't make enough money alone to keep the household running.
Just two types of spousal support are formally recognized in California:
- Temporary support, which can begin right after you file and last until your divorce is final
- Long-term support, which begins when your divorce ends and lasts per a judge's orders
Note that these are the only two types of spousal support listed on California forms and on the state's website. You may hear about things like "reimbursement alimony" or "rehabilitated alimony," which aren't formally enshrined in California law.
How do courts set spousal support amounts?
Couples often argue about how much one should pay another. Courts can step in and help reconcile these disagreements. But judges don't have freewheeling power. They must follow the law in each case they hear.
These are the rules and guidelines judges follow:
Temporary (or short-term) support
One part of a couple can ask a judge to set a short-term spousal support amount that lasts until the divorce is final. A judge looks at two facts:
- The needs of the person who makes less money
- The ability of the other party to make spousal support payments
Judges often use a simple formula to determine short-term spousal support payment amounts: 40% of the high earner's net monthly income minus 50% of the lower earner's net monthly income.
Determining how much spousal support payments should be after the divorce takes more time, and judges must examine many more factors.
California's Family Code 4320 includes rules about spousal support. Judges must consider the following:
- How long your marriage lasted
- How old both parties are
- How healthy you both are
- How much you both make
- How much you're both capable of earning based on your skills, education, and job market
- Your standard of living as a married couple, including the car you drove, the house you owned, and what vacations you took
- How much property or debt you have
- Whether one of you helped the other get an education or job training
- Need and ability to pay
- History of abuse during your marriage
If you have children together, the judge must also consider how caring for the children impacted your careers and how working will impact your children.
How long will long-term support last?
There's no simple chart or graph that outlines how long spousal support lasts after a marriage. Judges must examine a list of factors to make a determination.
A judge is trying to determine two important things:
- How long it will take for a supported spouse to become fully self-sufficient
- How much money the person will need until that happens
The so-called Gavron warning can apply to some couples. California Family Code 4330 says the person getting support should make "reasonable efforts" to become self-sufficient. Judges can give this warning in writing or verbally, motivating people to do all they can to ensure the support ends as quickly as possible.
In general, for marriages lasting less than 10 years, payments last half the length of the union. The longer the marriage, the longer payments last. Spousal support can be permanent (although rarely).
Support ends when any of the following occurs:
- Couples agree to end things, and the court signs an agreement
- The court orders that payments stop
- The supported spouse gets married again
- Either spouse dies
How to change spousal support amounts
Courts expect that couples will change after the end of their marriage, and often, that means payments should be altered too. Sometimes, original court rulings include details about when payments end. But sometimes, couples must work together to alter the payments.
Two important methods exist:
If you and your spouse agree on new terms, you can write your agreement (called a stipulation) and get a judge to sign it without having to head to court in person.
Find a Self-Help Center near you, and ask the team to help you with the forms. This isn't something you can do alone, as you'll need to consider the same set of items a judge does when setting the amount. And you'll need someone to help you get the documents in front of the judge. A Help center can work with you on this with no fees involved.
Ask the court
If you can't agree on payment changes with your partner, you can work with the court and ask for rulings.
The work starts with forms. You must fill out the following:
- Request for Order (FL-300)
- Income and Expense Declaration (FL-150)
- Spousal or Domestic Partner Support Declaration (FL-157)
Make two copies, bring them and documents that support your case to your court, and prepare for a $60 fee. The clerk will do the following:
- Stamp your forms
- Write a hearing date on the FL-300
- Keep the original and return your copies
Next, you must give your partner a copy of the forms through a process called serving. Identify someone not connected to the case, and ask that person to give your partner the forms at least 16 days before your hearing. Your server will hand the person the following documents:
- A copy of your papers
- A blank Responsive Declaration to Request for Orders (FL-320)
- A blank Spousal or Domestic Partner Support Declaration Attachment (FL-157)
Ask your server to fill out the Proof of Personal Service (FL-330) and give it back to you. Make a copy, bring it to court, and file it. You must complete this process at least five days before your hearing.
Spousal support payment challenges everyone should know
Alimony or spousal support isn't mandatory in California, but if one person makes more money than the other, the court may require it. If you're hoping to avoid payments altogether but make much more money, you're likely out of luck.
If you have a prenuptial agreement, your spousal support plans can change dramatically. Some couples who want payments may not get them due to these agreements.
And finally, know that your choice to move in with another partner could impact your payments. If a spouse can prove that the other is living with someone else, that could impact the amount paid. It makes sense to research this before you move forward with another relationship, so just so you are aware ahead of time.
How to pay spousal support
Most judges require payments to be extracted from a person's paycheck. The process is efficient, and it ensures that you can't forget payments or skip them in a moment of spite. This arrangement can also help you avoid the 10% penalty you'll pay if you skip payments.
Spousal support payments & your taxes
Both getting and receiving spousal support can have a significant impact on your taxes in California, but not at the federal level.
Beginning in January 2019, the IRS no longer includes spousal support payments in taxes. So, the fees won't help or harm your federal taxes. This rule applies to divorces executed after December 31, 2018.
In California, payments are income for the recipients, and they're expenses for the payors. This could have a deep impact on the amount you owe the state each year. Meet with a tax preparer ahead of time to ensure you don’t have surprises come tax time.
Watch: Spousal Support During Divorce
Spousal Support. Judicial Branch of California.
Temporary Spousal Support. Judicial Branch of California.
Long-Term Spousal Support. Judicial Branch of California.
California Family Code 4330. Case Text.
Prepare an Agreement to Change Long-Term Support. Judicial Branch of California.
Ask to Change Your Long-Term Spousal Support Order. Judicial Branch of California.
Serve Your Request to Change Long-Term Spousal Support. Judicial Branch of California.
Paying Spousal Support. Judicial Branch of California.
Clarification: Changes to Deduction for Certain Alimony Payments Effective in 2019. (February 2022). IRS.
Alimony. State of California Franchise Tax Board.