What is Alimony in California, How Much is Alimony and How Long Does it Last?

This comprehensive FAQ guide on alimony in California will answer these questions and many more

Learn about alimony in California, how much it may be, how long it lasts and more

You will rarely find a divorce case that does not involve some alimony issue. The longer the marriage in California, the more critical alimony may become.

This FAQ guide on alimony in California will walk you through the most common questions we encounter from potential and actual clients. We will go through common alimony questions and nuanced or complicated ones which some spouses find difficulty getting answers.

This FAQ guide on California alimony is not legal advice nor intended to apply to your specific situation.

If you need legal advice and your matter is in Southern California, please contact us for an affordable strategy session. We have offices in Southern California.

Click on the + sign to read the answer to each alimony question.

Questions on California alimony laws

What is alimony in California?

Alimony is payment by one spouse to the other spouse. It is similar to child support in the manner of payment. Most alimony payments are monthly. The typical alimony order splits the monthly alimony payment into half on the 1st half on the 15th of the month.

Alimony does not have to be paid monthly. Spouses are free to negotiate alimony payments in different matters.

Court orders sometimes require alimony payments by paying the other spouse's expenses. That is not a typical arrangement.

Spouses should be careful when they get too creative with alimony payments. They may be calling something alimony that federal tax laws or state tax laws may not consider alimony. That can have adverse tax consequences.

Spouses should obtain tax advice from experienced tax professionals such as a CPA or tax lawyer.

What is the difference between alimony and spousal support?

There is no difference between alimony in spousal support. Those terms are synonymous in California.

How does alimony work in California?

How alimony works is a common question. Those who ask this question want to know how alimony is determined in California.

Think of alimony in two parts. The first is temporary alimony while the divorce case is pending. The second is alimony at the judgment phase, which is alimony in the divorce judgment.

Temporary alimony is determined differently than the alimony in a divorce judgment.

Spouses typically determine temporary alimony through the same computer program that determines child support. Temporary alimony usually does not get into the detailed Family Code 4320 factors the law requires for the alimony in the judgment.

Alimony at the judgment phase usually does get into those more complex factors. Spouses have two choices. They can either compromise on the factors and alimony amount or put the issue before the judge.

Suppose the spouses choose for the judge to make the decision. In that case, the judge must go through the Family Code 4320 factors to determine the alimony amount.

How long do you have to be married to get alimony in California?

California alimony laws do not state you have to be married a minimum number of months to get alimony.

However, since the purpose of alimony is to maintain the status quo and the marital standard of living, it is difficult to argue for alimony in very short marriages, especially those under one year. Once spouses get past the one-year mark, the chances of an alimony payment increase.

How is alimony calculated in California?

Alimony calculation again depends on whether we are talking about temporary alimony or the alimony in a divorce judgment.

As we explained earlier, temporary alimony is calculated through the same computer program that calculates child support.

That computer program has certain factors inputted, resulting in a spousal support number. If the spouses have children, the child support suppresses the alimony amount because child support comes out first.

An experienced family law attorney can calculate temporary alimony (through what some call an "alimony calculator," but it is much more than that) and run different hypotheticals if there is uncertainty in the numbers.

Please be careful relying on online programs to calculate alimony. You may be getting the wrong number or not considering all factors. It is best to have an experienced divorce attorney run the numbers for you.

Alimony is calculated in the divorce judgment by considering the Family Code 4320 factors. That calculation usually starts by reviewing tax returns and possibly evaluating the family's spending in the 3 to 5 years before separation. Most of the time, that timeframe is a good sample size of the marital standard of living.

However, sometimes the sample size needs to be shorter or longer depending on the case. There are no rigid rules regarding this when calculating alimony in California.

Suppose income is not straightforward, or it fluctuates. In that case, it may help to have a forensic accountant help with the alimony calculation. That forensic accountant can prepare what divorce lawyers call a marital standard of living analysis.

How much is alimony in California?

It is common for spouses to think that alimony should be whatever number the spouse needs to maintain the standard of living.

However, it does not work like that. Need is a factor, but so is the ability to pay, status quo, the standard of living, and the remainder of the Family Code 4320 factors.

How long does alimony last in California?

Spouses often want to know how long alimony lasts in California. The spouse receiving alimony wants to know how long they can expect payment. The spouse paying alimony wants to know how long they are expected to pay it.

The answer depends first and foremost on the length of a marriage.

Although California courts have the discretion to award alimony for shorter or longer periods, most alimony payments for marriages under 10 years last one-half the duration of the marriage. The duration of the marriage is from the date of the marriage to the date of the separation.

To understand what we mean by the date of separation, we encourage you to read our guide on Family Code 70 and date of separation in a California divorce.

However, spouses should be careful and not assume that the alimony in their case will follow this rule.

The court can treat marriages under 10 years as a long-term marriage under certain circumstances, and a court can terminate alimony in long marriages. These issues are fact-dependent, and an experienced divorce attorney's advice is essential.

How is alimony paid if income fluctuates from month to month?

Not everyone has a predictable or stable income. Some careers require a person to work overtime.

A person may receive bonuses dependent on performance or the employer's financial success. Spouses may receive stocks or options that supplement their income.

Those who are self-employed or own their own business may not receive income on a steady or predictable basis, especially if the business is a start-up. All of these factors and more may cause income to fluctuate from month to month or year to year.

Fortunately, experienced divorce attorneys know how to handle such situations. Alimony does not have to be a fixed amount each month.

Sometimes, alimony fluctuates depending on the fluctuation of income. That alimony is paid through a percentage of a spouse's additional income. These issues are complex and beyond the scope of this article. Sometimes, this is called an Ostler-Smith order.

Please consult with our experienced California divorce attorneys to learn more about this and how it may apply to your situation.

Questions by the person paying alimony

How much alimony will I have to pay in California?

Calculating your alimony amount will be straightforward if you are a W-2 employee and you earn more money than your spouse.

Using the proper computer software programs that family law lawyers and judges use, a family law lawyer can tell you the temporary alimony amount. As we wrote earlier, regarding the ultimate amount, that is a little more involved.

The information the divorce lawyer will need to determine how much alimony you will pay requires an analysis of the Family Code 4320 factors.

The calculation is not complicated for a middle-income to upper-middle-income family. It just involves a little more work.

How long do I have to pay alimony in California?

Suppose you are a marriage well under 10 years. In that case, your total alimony exposure should not be more than half the duration of the marriage. As we explained earlier, the marriage duration is from the date of the marriage to the date of the separation.

Now suppose your marriage is very close to 10 years. In that case, an experienced divorce lawyer can let you know if factors may cause a court to treat your marriage as if it is a 10 year or longer marriage.

Marriages under 10 years are usually not treated as long-term marriages, but there can be exceptions, especially if the other spouse has significant health or income-earning limitations.

If you are a marriage that is 10 years or longer, please do not assume that you have to pay long-term or even lifetime alimony. That is a false assumption many spouses make.

Several factors affect whether a marriage that is 10 years or longer will result in an open-ended spousal support order that continues until death, remarriage, further order of the court, or earlier termination date.

When does alimony end in California?

Alimony ends when there is a court order ending it.

For example, if the spouses are married for five years and the court order states that one spouse will pay the other spouse alimony, that order should have a termination date built into it. That termination date is the outside date the paying spouse should pay alimony.

As a further example, it may read that spouse number one will pay spouse number two alimony of $1000 per month until either spouse's death, the alimony receiving spouse's remarriage or entering into a new domestic partnership, further order of the court or a specific date in the future, whichever occurs first.

The alimony order should specifically include language regarding the future termination of alimony and termination of the court's jurisdiction to award it.

The language is not one or two lines in a properly drafted alimony order. These issues are why the advice of an experienced divorce attorney is important - to ensure the language regarding the outside date and the termination of alimony and the court's power to award it is unequivocal.

What an alimony order like that does is allow for termination of alimony earlier than the outside date (for death, remarriage, or potential further order of the court) while, at the same time, establishing an outside date for termination.

What if I cannot afford to pay the court-ordered alimony?

Suppose there is a court order for alimony, and you cannot afford to pay it. In that case, you should immediately consult with an experienced family law attorney to determine if you have a proper basis for a modification of alimony.

One of the worst things you can do is not pay the alimony or partially pay it.

Do not rely on representations from your spouse or ex-spouse that they will forgive the alimony you have not paid or that they agree to accept a lesser payment. Such agreements must be in writing. It is dangerous to rely on such representations or agreements unless they are memorialized in an agreement that becomes a court order.

With a court-ordered modification of alimony, you have the security of knowing your spouse or ex-spouse cannot come back later and claim there was no agreement or that the terms of the agreement were different than what you thought they were.

Questions by the person who wants alimony or is receiving it

How much alimony will I get in California?

The answer is the same as we explained earlier but with a few more considerations.

For the person receiving alimony, you should also consider whether your spouse is being truthful about their income. If your spouse is a W-2 employee, it is difficult to hide income.

Suppose your spouse is self-employed or otherwise owns a business or has a business interest with fellow members, shareholders, or partners. In that case, there is a risk your spouse will lie or not disclose their entire income that is available for support purposes.

That is why it is often a good idea to retain a forensic accountant to conduct what they call "a controllable cash flow of income available for support purposes."

This cash flow report includes a detailed analysis of the other spouse's income from all sources. If your spouse writes personal expenses through the business and then deducts it as a business expense, those items may be add-backs to their income and included in the support calculation as non-taxable income to them.

How long do I get alimony in California?

We also answered this earlier but one tip we like to give to spouses who are receiving alimony when it comes to the end date is not giving away that end date in negotiations.

If you are a long-term marriage, do not be pressured to terminate alimony in the future, no matter how much your spouse may push on that issue.

There's nothing wrong with keeping spousal support open-ended on a long-term marriage.

If your spouse has a reasonable factual and legal basis for ending spousal support in the future, they can bring that request to the court in the future. There's no reason for you to give up your right to open-ended court orders now.

What if the other party is not paying the court-ordered alimony?

If your spouse or ex-spouse is not paying the court-ordered spousal support, you have several options available to you.

The first option is to immediately retain a family law attorney to communicate with the other party regarding that non-payment. You may find one letter does the trick, and the other party starts paying spousal support again.

Suppose the other party does not pay spousal support despite reasonable efforts and communication.

In that case, you can engage in collection efforts, including but not limited to wage garnishment, bank levies, etc. It would help if you communicated with an experienced collection attorney regarding your options. You may also file a family law contempt action against your spouse for a willful and knowing failure to pay spousal support.

Cost versus benefit can be a factor in all of this. An experienced family law attorney can explain your rights and the right time to proceed with your claims.

Alimony questions based on the years of marriage

What we write in this section assumes that alimony is justified in these cases. Just because two people are married and then separate does not automatically mean there will be alimony. The disparity in income, ability to pay, and need consistent with the marital standard of living and the Family Code 4320 factors is still important.

In what we write below, we assume that the person requesting alimony met all of those factors and has a right to receive it. We then provide you with information in marriages of the following duration.

Alimony in California for marriages under 1 year

Marriages under 1 year usually do not result in alimony payments, although there can be exceptions. Suppose there is a significant disparity in income. In that case, the court has the power to award alimony in marriages of this duration.

Alimony in California for marriages under 5 years

Suppose a marriage is between 2 years to 5 years.

In that case, the court will likely order alimony for half the duration of the marriage. Understand that the halfway duration of the marriage is the outside date. It does not mean the spouse receiving alimony will automatically get it for that time.

It is essential for the person paying alimony to negotiate a termination date of alimony and terminate the court's ability to award alimony at that halfway or earlier mark.

You do not want an open-ended alimony order that requires you to come back and terminate alimony in the future.

Alimony in California for marriages under 10 years

Everything we wrote above applies to marriages under 10 years, except for those marriages that are very close to the 10-year mark. Those close to the 10-year mark have the potential of being treated as a long-term marriage depending on certain factors the court may consider.

Significant health issues of the spouse requesting alimony and the inability to support themselves is one of those factors.

It is again important for the paying spouse to negotiate a firm termination date, as we explained earlier.

Alimony in California after 10 years of marriage

10 years or longer make a marriage that of long duration.

For the spouse paying alimony, it would be beneficial to negotiate a termination date in the future. That termination will assure that spouse that their alimony will not go past a specific date.

It would be beneficial for the spouse receiving alimony if the spousal support order is open-ended and does not have a set termination date. Those marriages between 10 years to 12 years often involve negotiations on these issues.

Like any good negotiation, there has to be a give and take. Both spouses should consider their current financial situation and the projected financial situation when negotiating such issues.

Alimony in California after 15 years of marriage

The alimony order is typically open-ended once spouses reach the 15-year mark and do not set a termination date. There are exceptions if the spouses negotiate a termination date in exchange for something else.

We have seen situations where the spouse paying alimony agrees to pay something more to their spouse in exchange for the termination date.

The "more" negotiated may be more of an asset, taking on more of the debt or even negotiating the alimony amount to be different from what it usually would have been.

Both spouses should take care in such negotiations. Speaking with your divorce lawyers is important, but so is speaking with your tax professional and financial advisor.

Alimony in California after 20 years of marriage

Everything we wrote regarding marriages of 15 years or more applies here, except they become even more critical.

Marriages of 20 years or longer are complicated if one spouse has been out of the workforce for many years. Suppose one spouse has been the homemaker for the entire duration or nearly the entire duration of the marriage. In that case, it is far more difficult for that spouse to enter the workforce.

Other questions about alimony in California

Do California alimony laws change if there is infidelity?

Infidelity does not have an impact on California's alimony laws. Infidelity may have other impacts on divorce and for that, we encourage you to read our article on how infidelity affects a divorce.

I heard there is such a thing as "permanent alimony" in California. Is that true?

Permanent or "lifetime" alimony in California is somewhat of a misnomer.

With rare exceptions, most alimony orders in long-term marriages state they continue until the death of either party, remarriage of the spouse receiving support or that spouse's new domestic partnership, or further order of the court, whichever occurs first. That further order of the court language is what allows future modifications.

Therefore, when people talk of permanent or lifetime alimony, they usually misunderstand California law on this issue.

That does not mean that spouses cannot negotiate permanent or lifetime alimony but alimony by its very nature must end upon death.

If alimony continues even after death, the question becomes whether it is alimony. It would be best to ask your tax professional that question because family law attorneys generally do not provide tax advice.

Spouses can also negotiate alimony amounts that are unmodifiable until a particular event in the future, such as death or remarriage. Spouses can even negotiate that remarriage does not necessarily terminate alimony, although that is unusual.

Is there alimony reform in California?

Alimony has reformed to some extent already in California. In the much older days, hitting the 10-year mark almost felt like a retirement contract for one of the spouses.

That has not been the case for many years. Courts have and use much more discretion than they used to have regarding the amount of alimony and its duration in contested cases. The important part is for the court to do its job and go through all the Family Code 4320 factors.

Does cohabitation affect alimony in California?

Yes, cohabitation affects alimony.

For a detailed understanding of how cohabitation affects alimony, read our comprehensive guide on cohabitation and alimony in California.

Can you get alimony after the divorce is final in California?

That depends on the divorce judgment. Sometimes, spouses will finalize their divorce but set spousal support at zero and reserve the court's power to order it in the future.

That happens when the spouses earn around the same amount of income at the time of the divorce, and neither one needs alimony from the other spouse.

However, especially in a long-term marriage, the spouses do not want to waive spousal support forever. They want to leave the court's power to award it intact, so if either of them needs alimony, they can ask the court to order it.

That need can happen if a spouse temporarily loses employment, earns less than they used to, or suffers a severe medical condition that causes a long-term employment loss and extraordinary expenses. Those are some, but not all, of the scenarios.

The above is not the only way a person can get alimony after a final divorce, but it may be the most common. The main question and issue are whether the divorce judgment left open (or at least did not terminate) the option to seek alimony in the future.

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