When a couple legally separates or divorces, the court may order one spouse to pay the other a certain amount of support money each month. This is called “spousal support," but is often also called “alimony.”
The purpose of spousal support is to provide each spouse with sufficient income for their needs and to ensure their lifestyle remains consistent.
So, what is a reasonable amount to pay? Everyone knows that it takes more money to support two households rather than one - so how does marital lifestyle come into play, particularly in an expensive city like Los Angeles?
Spousal support in California is based on a series of factors including the length of the marriage, the incomes of both parties, age and health of the parties, whether one spouse forwent a career to support the family, history of domestic violence, and more.[i]
None of these factors are hard numbers, so where does that leave us?
Let’s look at the guideline formula, which is also known as “Dissomaster.”
While a divorce is pending, the court may order either spouse to pay any amount necessary for the support of the other spouse, consistent with the Family Code.[ii] This is called “temporary” or “pendente lite” spousal support. It is temporary because the divorce is still pending final resolution.
Usually, when calculating temporary spousal support, the courts consult the guideline formula. In Los Angeles, this means that a payor can expect to pay approximately 40% of his or her net income after any deduction for child support, less 50% of the net income of the payee for temporary spousal support.[iii] The formula can be changed based on special circumstances, but it is used far more often than not.
However, the guideline formula cannot be used for setting long-term support, only temporary support.[iv]
For long-term support, the court will use the factors listed above and in California Family Code §4320. Because these factors are not a mathematical formula, and judges have wide discretion in setting long-term spousal support, it’s impossible to predict exactly what any particular judge might decide at trial, which makes it risky to litigate. However, an experienced divorce attorney can share insight about the possible range that is likely.
Generally, though not always, monthly payments for long-term spousal support are less than those for temporary support. Many divorce attorneys will calculate long-term spousal support to be 80% of the guideline formula as a rule of thumb in order to negotiate an agreement on long term support.
Because long-term support orders are difficult to predict at trial, if two parties are within a close enough range, it is often not financially worth litigating and the parties can settle and avoid the expense of court. At trial, each side faces exposure: either paying more or being paid less, depending on the individual judge’s application of the 4320 factors.
[i] California Family Code §4320 [ii] California Family Code §3600 [iii] See, Los Angeles Ct Fam R 5.10 and Santa Clara Ct Fam R 3.C [iv] See, Marriage of Zywiciel (2000) 83 CA4th 1078, 1082; Marriage of Schulze (1997) 60 CA4th 519, 527
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