Spousal support in family law proceedings

During the pendency of a proceeding for dissolution of marriage or legal separation and at the time of final judgment, the court may order a party to pay any amount necessary for the support of the other party. This is known as spousal support (formerly alimony) and may be classified as either temporary or permanent spousal support. Temporary spousal support is ordered during the pendency of the proceeding prior to a final judgment of dissolution of marriage or legal separation. Its purpose is to preserve the living standards of the parties as close as possible to the status quo. See Family Code Section 3600. It is normally based upon temporary support guidelines utilized by the courts which primarily consider the relative incomes of the parties and which promote consistency in temporary support orders. The use of temporary guidelines is not mandatory, however, and the court has wide discretion in determining the proper amount of temporary spousal support. Temporary spousal support can be ordered based upon the agreement of the parties or by the court after a hearing requested by the party seeking support.

Permanent spousal support is ordered at the time of judgment, either after a trial or a settlement agreement entered into between the parties. Although it is often referred to as “permanent,” it is always subject to modification (unless the parties agree that it is non modifiable) and may, in fact, have a specified termination date or be ordered to automatically step down. Regardless of the amount and duration of the actual spousal support payment order, if the marriage is considered to be “long term” (10 years or longer from date of marriage to date of separation), the court must, at the very least, “indefinitely” retain jurisdiction over spousal support, so as to have the power to make future orders establishing or modifying spousal support if the circumstances warrant. See Family Code Section 4336. When determining the amount of permanent spousal support, the court cannot rely on temporary support guidelines. The court must consider all of the factors contained in Family Code Section 4320, including the standard of living of the parties, age and health of the parties, incomes of the parties, needs of the parties, ability to pay of the supporting spouse, the marketable skills of the supported spouse, and many other considerations.

If a supported spouse is “cohabiting with a person of the opposite sex” after an order for spousal support is made, this creates a “rebuttable presumption” of decreased need for spousal support. However, it does not automatically terminate spousal support. The party seeking to terminate or reduce the support must file a request for hearing with the court, which will then determine whether support should be terminated or reduced. See Family Code Section 4323.