Alimony, called spousal support by the California court system, is a payment one spouse is ordered to pay another during or after a divorce or legal separation. It is invaluable for people who have sacrificed opportunities to support their partners during their marriage. However, the system can be confusing, no matter which side of an alimony order you’re on.
One of the most common questions people have about it is simple: “Are alimony orders permanent?” After all, spousal support can seriously impact your finances, whether you’re paying or receiving it. Understanding what to expect is essential, so you know how to budget going forward.
So, what’s the answer? Unfortunately, the answer is that there is no single answer. Some spousal support orders are “indefinite,” or essentially permanent, while others are not. Here’s what you need to know about alimony orders in California, how to tell what kind of order you have and what you can do to modify or end an order after it’s issued.
How Alimony Is Awarded in California
Spousal support is sometimes awarded when a couple gets divorced or legally separated. It is typically part of a settlement agreement, where both spouses agree on the terms of the order, but it may sometimes be ordered by a judge if the couple takes the matter to court.
The goal of a support order is to grant a lower-earning spouse additional resources after their finances are separated. In many marriages, one partner will pass on career or educational opportunities to care for the other person. This may include working lower-paying jobs while the other person pursues higher education or staying at home to care for children and the household while the other person works. In these situations, the lower-income partner’s income potential is reduced because of the sacrifices they made for their marriage. Alimony acknowledges these sacrifices requiring the higher-income spouse to help them cover their costs.
California does not have a specific calculation used to determine alimony. Instead, judges are instructed that they may “order a party to pay for the support of the other party an amount, for a period of time, that the court determines is just and reasonable, based on the standard of living established during the marriage.” What is found to be “just and fair” can vary significantly depending on other circumstances. Judges consider details like:
- The length of the marriage
- The income of both parties
- The marketable skills and employability of the lower-income spouse
- The ability of the higher-income partner to pay
- The needs of both parties according to the standard of living set in their marriage
- The age and health of both parties
- Any history of domestic violence within the marriage
With these factors taken into consideration, a judge may order payments if they believe it is necessary and will not pose an undue burden on the paying party.
When Spousal Support May Be Indefinite
Three primary types of alimony may be ordered or named in a divorce settlement:
- Temporary: A short-term order issued before a divorce or separation is finalized that requires the higher-income spouse to support the other person until the final decree is issued.
- Rehabilitative: A medium-term order, often of five years or less, intended to help the recipient cover their costs until they can provide for themselves.
- Permanent: An indefinite order that may last for the life of the paying party or until the death or remarriage of the recipient.
Temporary orders are the most common, followed by rehabilitative orders. Judges often hesitate to award permanent alimony because it could negatively affect the paying party if their finances change. In most cases, permanent orders are reserved for marriages of long duration, usually defined as 10 years, but may be less if the judge determines other factors affect the case.
Even in long-lasting marriages, permanent support is not guaranteed. Judges are more likely to award indefinite support if the receiving spouse is in poor health, nearing retirement, or has already retired. This is because these conditions make it less likely that the recipient will ever be able to become self-supporting.
Can You Modify or Terminate Spousal Support in California?
Even indefinite alimony orders are not necessarily permanent. Ex-spouses can petition to modify or terminate a support order if there has been a substantial, unanticipated change to their financial circumstances. These orders are not intended to be punitive, so the California court system permits ending orders early or reducing the ordered payments if financial assistance is no longer necessary or the paying party can no longer afford it.
For example, if you lose your job or become disabled, you may no longer be able to pay the same amount in support. On the other hand, if your spouse remarries or gets a new, high-paying job, the support may not be necessary to help them maintain their standard of living. In both cases, the court may choose to terminate even permanent orders.
Note that these changes must be unanticipated. If you quit your job on purpose, your newly reduced income will not qualify you to terminate the order. This is intended to protect alimony recipients from losing their support because of the actions of a vindictive partner.
Contact Us for Skilled Assistance in Spousal Support Matters
Spousal support is one of the most complex matters involved in a divorce. If you are concerned about how spousal support will impact your finances, or if you need to modify your order after an unexpected financial change, reach out to the skilled attorneys at CC LawGroup. We have decades of experience helping clients with alimony disputes in Newark, Fremont, and the San Jose metropolitan area. Learn more about how we can help you by scheduling your consultation today.