At one point in time, alimony, also known as spousal support, was viewed as a lifelong entitlement or burden, depending on whether you are receiving or paying.

Things have changed.

Alimony in California:

Recent California legislation and court rulings indicate that spousal support should only last as long as it takes the supported spouse to obtain gainful employment to support him or herself.

“The law has thus progressed from a rule that entitled some women to lifelong alimony as a condition of the marital contract of support to one that entitles either spouse to post dissolution support for only as long as necessary to become self-supporting.” The California Supreme Court.

There are some general guidelines that do apply. With respect to a short-term marriage (believe it or not, a marriage up to 10 years is considered short), the rule of thumb is that alimony or spousal support should last no more than half the length of the marriage.  So, for a marriage of 8 years, spousal support should last about 4 years.

There certainly are exceptions.  On the one hand, for example, when very young children are involved, the parent that is the primary caregiver may not be able to take on a full time job or obtain the education and training necessary to become self sufficient. However, as the children get older and more self-sufficient, the parent is under an obligation to begin the process.

On the other hand, when the supported parent is highly educated or skilled, it may not take more than a year for him or her to resume a successful career and become self-supported relatively quickly.

For long-term marriages-Marriages over 10 years-the rule of thumb does not apply. When alimony or spousal support is ordered for a long-term marriage, it is usually open ended. The supported spouse is still under an obligation to take efforts to become self-sufficient.

Becoming self-sufficient can include going back to school to earn a degree or learn a trade. This can certainly take time and it can even take a few years to gain the experience necessary to obtain gainful employment after a degree is earned. However, just because it takes time and effort to become self-sufficient after a long marriage does not mean the supported spouse can delay the process or not take the steps necessary. If the court finds that the supported spouse is not taking efforts to become employed and self-sufficient, the court can reduce and terminate alimony payments.

But, alimony or spousal support does not end on its own. The paying spouse must take steps to ensure the supported spouse is becoming independent. This typically means that the supporting spouse has to file a motion with the court requesting that:

  1. The court specifically warn the supported spouse that he or she must take efforts to get a job-This is known as a Gavron warning; and
  2. Set specific tasks that the supported spouse must do to become self-sufficient, i.e., apply for 5 jobs every other week and keep a record of it, attend trade school, etc.

Once the supported spouse receives a Gavron warning and fails to take diligent efforts to find employment, the court can and will terminate or substantially reduce spousal support. This is part punishment and to provide motivation to the supported spouse to get going.

In fact, the court has wide discretion in making spousal support orders.  The Court could, make what is known as the Richmond order. In a Richmond order the court sets a specific date to terminate alimony or spousal support. Spousal support will cease on that date, unless the supported spouse brings his or her own motion based on very good reasons why he or she could not get a job. Typically the court does not immediately terminate alimony or spousal support. It is usually reduced over time on a step-down basis before it ends.

No matter what you have heard, alimony or spousal support is no longer permanent. It is now the law of California for persons receiving spousal support to take steps to become and ultimately achieve financial self-sufficiency. In other words, if one shows that their ex-spouse has had sufficient time and means to become self sufficient, but refused to do so, the court will reduce or eliminate spousal support.

Life long alimony or spousal support is no longer a right. But it is up to the person paying spousal support to seek the court’s assistance. The sooner one begins the process of weaning their ex-spouse off of spousal support, no matter how long the marriage, the sooner spousal support will end.

If you believe you are paying too much in spousal support or have been paying it for too long, you need the assistance of an experienced counsel. There are strategies to getting your ex-spouse back to work to reduce or eliminate your spousal support obligation. Decreasing or eliminating alimony or spousal support is not automatic. The longer you wait to assert your rights the more money you will lose.