There are two points in a California divorce where the court may be asked to award spousal support to a spouse: (1) During the pendency of the divorce, and (2) Upon final judgment. The first is usually called Temporary Spousal Support or pendente lite spousal support, while the latter is often referred to as Permanent Spousal Support (although that does not necessarily mean it will last forever- more on that below).
A party may request temporary spousal support while a divorce is pending. This is the time between the filing of the Petition and the entry of a final Judgment in the case. This time period can range anywhere from six months up to a few years, depending on your case. A request for spousal support can be made by filing a Request for Order along with any additional required forms such as an Income and Expense Declaration.
But how is temporary spousal support calculated? The court is given wide discretion to order or deny spousal support, as well as pick an appropriate amount. The general purpose of temporary spousal support is to try to maintain some type of semblance of what the parties had during marriage, considering the supported party's needs and the supporting party's ability to pay. The court can also consider a "guideline" formula for temporary spousal support, and many judges do. In most California counties the courts will use a program called Dissomaster. An experienced family law attorney will have the program and can help you input the right numbers to make sure you know what the "guideline" amount would be. In general, though, when one party is the main wage earner and the other party has little to no income, you can expect guideline spousal support to be roughly 30-35% of the supporting party's gross income. If there are minor children involved, spousal support is calculated after child support is calculated.
Permanent Spousal Support is calculated differently. Once your case reaches judgment (either by having a trial or by a stipulated judgment), the court is no longer allowed to consider the "guideline" amount and must instead consider all of the factors found in Family Code §4320. Some of these factors include: the standard of living during marriage, the earning capacity of both parties, the extent that domestic duties affected a party's income during marriage, any history of domestic violence between the parties, and basically anything else that the court wants to consider.
If you had a short term marriage of less than ten years, you can usually expect spousal support to last for roughly half the length of marriage (meaning if the marriage was four years, permanent spousal support would last approximately two years). For long term marriages of ten years or more, spousal support usually continues until the death of either party or the remarriage of the supported spouse. But this is not necessarily a guarantee, since the court is allowed to set an amount and length of spousal support that it deems appropriate.
Does that mean that permanent spousal support can never be modified or terminated? No. Many people will have a change in circumstance later in life that might make a modification of support appropriate. This often happens in situations where the supporting party retires, loses a job, or becomes disabled, among other potential reasons. Additionally, the supported party may get a good new job making more money, win the lottery, receive a large inheritance or trust income, or begin residing with a new partner who covers some of their expenses, or any number of other situations. These situations may be reasons to request a modification of support, but it is not necessarily guaranteed. A judge can choose to keep the existing order, lower it, or cancel it altogether. In rare circumstances it might even be appropriate for a court to order the previously supported party to start paying spousal support to the other spouse. The circumstances of how and when a modification would be appropriate might already be spelled out in your judgment, so it is important to have an experienced family law attorney look at your dissolution paperwork when considering whether a post-judgment modification of support would be appropriate. Like anything else in family law, a change has to be requested by filing a Request for Order along with a number of other required forms.
If you need to request or oppose spousal support at any point, or simply want to know your options and how much to expect, the Law Office of Rochelle Binns offers a free consultation to discuss these possibilities as well as your options.