How is Alimony Decided in California?

I often get approached by individuals or couples with uncertainty asking the question about how alimony is decided in California. First off, I recognize divorce is such a convoluted situation, and worrying about how you will survive emotionally is a daunting idea and coping financially can be even more overwhelming.

Alimony, or spousal support, is the money one spouse pays to another after a divorce is filed. And I believe that knowing as much about how it works and your options will help mitigate some of the stress about the process.

Whether you’re the one paying for it or receiving it, you need to know how alimony is determined in California. For those paying, you want to be sure you are not paying more than your fair share. For those receiving, you want to be sure you are getting what you are entitled to.

We’re going to take a look at how alimony is decided in California as well as the different types of alimony that a judge may order.

Different Types of Alimony

Three different types of alimony may pertain to your divorce case.

Temporary Alimony

Temporary alimony is paid when the divorce is pending. It is used to help the lower-earning spouse with expenses and maintain a standard of living they are accustomed to until all assets and debts are divided, and permanent support is issued.

Rehabilitative Alimony

Rehabilitative alimony is paid when one person was the primary earner and the other was the primary caregiver for the children. The goal of rehabilitative alimony is to support the other person and give them time to get the necessary skills to get a job and help support themselves.

Long-Term or Permanent Alimony

Court-ordered permanent alimony provides the necessary funds to cover the basic needs and standards to meet the lifestyle of the spouse receiving the money. Long-term alimony is generally used for marriages that lasted more than 10 years or one spouse can not work due to illness or age.

What is the Purpose of Alimony?

The purpose of alimony is to provide the receiving spouse with sufficient income for their basic needs. It ensures that they will be able to maintain the lifestyle they had when they were married.

In California, it is the policy that both parties will become self-supporting within a reasonable amount of time. Alimony is intended to bridge the gap between the time it takes the supported spouse to become employed or obtain the resources they need to meet their cost of living needs.

Calculating Alimony in California

The general rule for calculating temporary alimony in California takes 35% to 40% of the higher-earning spouse’s income and subtracts 40% to 50% of the lower-earning spouse’s income. This amount will vary depending on the county you live in.

Deciding on permanent alimony support can be even trickier. There is no formula and it involves looking at many different factors so that the judge can get a clear picture of the situation.

These factors include:

  • The extent that the earning capacity of each party is sufficient to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage. This takes into account the marketable skills of the supported parts as well as the job market for those skills, among other factors. It also looks at the extent to which the supported party’s present or future earning capacity was influenced by devoting time to raising children or domestic duties.
  • The ability of the supporting party to pay alimony
  • The needs of each spouse are based on the standard of living established during the marriage.
  • The duration of the marriage
  • The obligations and assets of each party
  • The age and health of the parties
  • Any documented evidence of domestic violence
  • The tax consequences on each spouse

The court will also look at any other factors that it deems worthy in the case.

Paying Alimony in California

When the judge issues spousal support orders, they will detail how the payments should be made. Typically, the judge will order payments over a period of time. This can be done through an income withholding order to the paying spouse’s employer.

Sometimes, alimony is paid in a lump sum. While some spouses prefer this, it means no changes can be made in the future.

How Long Does Alimony Last in California?

Generally, alimony lasts for half the length of a marriage that is less than 10 years long. Support generally lasts the reasonable amount of time it would take for a spouse to become self-supporting.

For marriages lasting longer than 10 years, there is generally no duration set. The spouse who pays will have the burden of proving that spousal support is no longer necessary. While circumstances vary from person to person, it is very rare for someone to receive lifetime support.

Can You Modify Alimony?

Judges can change or end alimony payments if necessary if there has been a change of circumstances. This is unless a couple specifically agreed that alimony can not be modified. Since modifying spousal support agreements can get complicated, it’s best to seek the help of a family attorney.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to alimony in California, it will be determined differently depending on whether it is temporary or long-term. While a formula is used for temporary alimony, there are deciding factors a judge will consider to determine long-term alimony.

Once the amount is decided, alimony payments may be ordered to be paid periodically or in a lump sum. Paying the money in a lump sum means no modifications can be made. You may be able to make changes to your alimony agreement if there has been a change in circumstances. It is important to note that lifetime spousal support is rare.

Whether you are the one paying or receiving alimony, be aware of the laws and your rights to best protect yourself. More importantly, reach out to a Certified Family Law Attorney to get expert, objective advice on what you should expect from alimony.


1. California Spousal Support Calculator – Cristin Lowe Law
2. Long-term spousal support | California Courts | Self Help Guide