When it comes to making a decision on the amount of alimony paid in a divorce case, the law provides a number of different guiding factors for courts to consider. One of the most important factors is the standard of living established during the marriage. One of the common questions clients often have of family lawyers when paying or seeking alimony is “just how does family court determine the marital standard of living?” As with so many areas of the law, the answer is, “it depends.”
This article was written to offer some basic information on the question of the marital standard as it applies to California family law. For more information on alimony, be sure to visit our main alimony/spousal support page. If you want to learn about other factors that go into alimony, read this page.
If, after reading this article, you still have questions about how courts determine the marital standard of living, contact our office for more information.
Alimony Orders, What the Law Says
The specific law providing guidance on the issue of alimony and the marital standard of living is found in California Family Code §4330(a). The law states:
“In a judgement of dissolution of marriage or legal separation of the parties, the court 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.”
Alimony Agreements – To Court, or Not to Court?
First, it should be mentioned that it’s not always necessary for the court to issue an order on alimony. In many cases, the divorcing couple is able to come to an agreement before it becomes necessary to go to family court for a trial. In these cases, the court simply approves the agreement between the parties before the divorce is finalized.
This is usually the preferred way of finalizing a divorce, and whenever possible, we recommend that our clients do what they can to settle a case in order to avoid an expensive and emotionally-draining divorce. Remember, there is a lot of negotiating that can be done outside the confines of a courtroom.
However, we also know there are cases where compromise and agreement are not possible without judicial intervention. In cases where it becomes necessary to go to court, clients naturally want to know what should be expected when it comes to how courts arrive at their decisions. While every divorce case is as different as the judges hearing them, some insight on the judicial process can be gleaned from case law.
In Determining What’s Reasonable, Courts Have Latitude
A divorce case considered in 1990 by the California Court of Appeals, First District offers some idea as to how much latitude courts have when considering the issue of reasonable marital standard.
That particular case involved the Ostler couple, who had been married for more than 20 years. Husband Clyde had a good paying job with a bank, where he enjoyed a series of raises, promotions and bonuses over the years.
When the couple separated, and a lower court considered the question of how much spousal support Clyde should pay his wife Vicki, the judge looked at Clyde’s monthly salary of $13,750 and monthly dividends of $1,542.
The lower court found, based on this amount, Clyde was able to pay his ex-wife a monthly amount of $5,900, which broke down to $3,000 for spousal support, and $1,450 for each of their two minor children. Additionally, Clyde was ordered to pay 15 percent of his annual gross cash bonus when received.
On appeal, Clyde challenged the portion of the order relating to payment of the portion of his bonuses — however, for the purposes of this article — we’re not really concerned with that aspect of the case. Rather, what’s important is what the appellate court said about the lower court’s responsibility when determining the marital standard.
The appellate court noted that the lower court wasn’t required to offer a breakdown of its data in reaching the amount of support ordered. The appellate court wrote:
“In determining the amount of support, however, the trial court is not required to have the particularity that would be required to have where a creditor is suing on each item. The evidence supports a finding that this amount covered basic needs…”
So, What Might a Court Determine to be a Reasonable Marital Standard of Living?
There are a number of different ways in which a judge might arrive at a dollar amount when considering the marital standard of living.
In some cases, the judge might look at the dominant earner’s salary over a period of time. For instance, the judge might consider the three years prior to separation. After arriving at the net sum earned by the dominant earner (after taxes), the court might divide this amount of money by the amount of time (36 months), in order to arrive at a monthly alimony payment.
Another method the court might use to determine the reasonable marital standard could include an expenditure analysis. Again, the court might take a reasonable period of time, perhaps three years, then consider the total community expenses. These expenses would likely exclude non-recurring expenses such as an out-of-state trip to visit family, a house remodeling, or a new car purchase. The total community expenses might be divided by two in order to arrive at the marital standard for each party.
In addition to considering what should be included in the marital standard of living, a judge might also consider what should be excluded.
For instance, the judge might consider the size of the community’s house, and whether or not children are still living there. If, for instance the couple shared a large 6,000 square foot home, and had seven children, all of whom had since grown and moved out, it might not be necessary to allocate all of the expenses associated with that property to one spouse. In other words, since the standard of living provided by the house benefited many of the children, it might not make sense for one spouse to claim the large, and largely empty property as part of the marital standard.
Can A Spouse Collect Alimony Indefinitely?
In some cases, the dominant earning spouse will be ordered to pay alimony until the other spouse remarries. Other times, the court will issue what is known as a Gavron warning. This means that the judge might order a spouse receive alimony for a set period of time, until such time as the can become more self-sufficient. Whether or not a judge issues a Gavron warning in your case will depend on a number of factors, all of which should be discussed with an attorney. Be sure to visit our Gavron warning page for more information.
Read our related post about paying alimony for life here.
Contacting a Family Attorney
If you’ve read this article, and are dealing with any of these questions in your own separation, you already know how complicated a divorce can get. If you and your former spouse shared a large community estate, if you face the possibility of paying a large sum in alimony, or you are facing the uncertainty of life without your primary earning spouse, it makes sense that you would hire a good family law attorney to help you look out for your interests.
While family law was designed to treat separating spouses fairly in a divorce situation, there are often many things that have to be considered, and even judges will get things wrong without the watchful eye of family attorneys.
Don’t go it alone, and don’t try to cut corners when it comes to hiring a family lawyer. Consider contacting our office to schedule a consultation, and learn how we can help.