When spouses seek a divorce in California, the courts make an effort to bridge any gaps in income between them in order to prevent undue financial burdens from falling on one of the spouses. The foundation of this law addresses marriage as a contract between two people in which they agree to pool their assets within a marital “community.” When one or both spouses choose to break the contract, the law seeks to end it fairly by ensuring that the higher earner lives up to their part of the financial arrangement the couple assumed during the marriage. The state does this in two ways—through child support, and through spousal support—commonly called alimony. While both serve to close financial gaps, the two types of support are otherwise very different, both in the way they are calculated and enforced and more importantly, in their purpose.
Understanding Child Support in California
California family courts place the best interests of a child as their highest priority. According to California family code, parents have the obligation to support their minor children regardless of their marital status.
When parents divorce, the court seeks to minimize the distress to children by ordering child support paid from the higher-earner to the lower-earning parent in order to maintain the children in their accustomed standard of living. While spousal support is ordered for the benefit of the lower-earning spouse, child support serves to benefit the children of divorced parents or the children of unmarried parents. Child support is meant to help meet the basic needs of the children, including housing, food, clothing, medical care, education, and extracurricular activities. Because it benefits children, child support is not taxable income for the receiving parent and isn’t tax deductible for the paying parent.
California uses a complex formula to calculate child support. This formula arrives at a monthly amount based on both income disparity between divorcing spouses and each spouse’s share of the parenting time, or the amount of time the children are in each parent’s custody. While this formula helps to determine the amount, the number is not binding. A judge may make adjustments to the amount depending on a family’s unique circumstances.
Determining Spousal Support in California
While child support is almost always a requirement for divorcing parents with minor children, spousal support—more commonly known as alimony—is not mandatory. Instead, a judge may award spousal support paid by one spouse to the other if there is a significant disparity in their incomes. If both spouses earn similar incomes, the judge will not award spousal support. Since the purpose of the payments are to keep a lower-earning spouse in the lifestyle to which they’re accustomed—either temporarily or permanently—if both spouses earn a similar living, then neither spouse requires support.
When an income disparity does exist, the courts consider the following when making a determination about spousal support orders:
- Did one spouse give up opportunities to advance their education and/or career in order to take on a greater share of home-making and childcare?
- Did one spouse financially support the education of the other spouse?
- Does one spouse have fewer marketable work skills?
- Will it negatively impact minor children if a caregiving spouse has to go back to work or increase work hours?
- Whether or not one spouse was the victim of domestic abuse
The courts also carefully consider a paying spouse’s ability to pay, and the health of both spouses before determining if a spousal support order is appropriate and a suitable amount. Unlike child support, spousal support in California does not have as many legal systems in place to pursue unpaid support. Where child support is mandatory, a prenuptial agreement may preemptively exclude spousal support as an option. In some cases, spousal support may come with a specific timeframe in which the lower-earning spouse must work to increase marketable skills before the support ceases. In cases of marriages of long duration, spousal support may be permanent.
Another very important distinction between child support and spousal support is that spousal support ends when the receiving spouse remarries but child support does not end until the youngest child turns 18 regardless of whether or not either parent remarries.