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Modifying Alimony/Spousal Support in California

By June 21, 2010November 25th, 2014No Comments4 min read

The idea that a husband should financially support his ex-wife in the form of monthly alimony payments after a divorce has remained a tenet in divorce law throughout the United States and in California. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2009, men accounted for 97% of alimony.  Alternatively, the idea that a dissolution order wherein both parties waive any right to past, present, or future alimony is FINAL has been perceived as an absolute in divorce law. Yet, both of these concepts are being challenged as the recession has given rise to greater numbers of unemployment and has depleted retirement and saving accounts.  According to statistics gathered by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, there has been a “spike” in clients seeking modification of their alimony obligations and attempts to rewrite divorce agreements.

The Taylor Case

The Wall Street Journal’s article “The New Art of Alimony” profiles a number of cases which cause one to question the conclusiveness of court ordered alimony.  For example, consider the case of the Taylors. Paul and Theresa Taylor had been married for 17 years. When they divorced Paul got the family’s vacation cottage, and Theresa got the family home.  Both parties agreed to waive any right to past, present, future alimony payments. Yet, more than 20 years after their divorce Mr. Taylor who had since remarried was ordered to pay $400.00 per week to support his ex-wife for the next 5 years. The circumstances which led Ms. Taylor to sue her ex-husband for support included being diagnosed with cancer, losing her job of 38 years, filing for bankruptcy, and losing her home.  The state probate court said that these “changed circumstances” created a “dire and immediate” need. These “changed circumstances” coupled with Mr. Taylor’s ability to pay resulted in the court ordering Mr. Taylor to pay Ms. Taylor $400 per week for 5 years and $250 per week thereafter for the rest of her life.

The Pierce Case

The Pierce case presents a different scenario.  The Pieces divorced after 32 years of marriage.  In the divorce they equally divided $1.4 million dollars in assets, and the court ordered Mr. Pierce to pay Ms. Pierce annual alimony of $110,000 until she remarried or until the death of either.  After Mr. Pierce retired his income dropped to about half of what he was making at the time of his divorce. The state probate court reduced the annual obligation to $42,000 but refused to terminate it because according to the court, Mr. Pierce had enough earning power to garner more income. The attorneys for Ms. Pierce argued that because Ms. Pierces’ retirement funds had been dwindled down to 50% of what they were once worth and since she no longer worked, that there was a financial disparity between the couple.  Further, it would be wrong to reverse a divorce agreement that had already been made.

Can What Happened in the Taylor or Pierce Case Happen to You in California?

First, one thing you should know is that a spousal support award is not mandatory in California.  Under the California Family Code, the Court has discretion to either deny spousal support or limit it in duration and amount.  Ultimately, the court must base its spousal support award on such factors as the standard of living established during the marriage and the parties’ respective abilities and needs.  The courts in California have to base a decision to award alimony on the facts, the evidence, and the circumstances of each case. There can be no speculation to account for future medical, retirement, or employment contingencies. The factors the court considers are numerous and include everything from the supporting spouse’s ability to pay to whether or not there has ever been a history of domestic violence in the marriage.

Modification of Spousal Support Orders

If you are under a court order to pay, you can petition the court to modify the agreement if the supported party is no longer in need, or there has been a change in the alimony payer’s ability to pay.  Thus, like the Taylor case, proceedings can be brought on the basis of “changed circumstances”.

Termination of Spousal Support Orders

If you are looking to terminate a spousal support order, your ability to do so may depend on the type of order.  Under the California Family Code an order can last for a fixed term or be contingent upon the happening of an event, such as, the death of either party or the supported party’s remarriage.

Spousal support is no doubt a tricky aspect of divorce law in California. There are many factors the court must consider in exercising its discretion.  And, the order must be justified by hard core facts and evidence.   So whether you are in a position where you need to know what, if any, spousal support obligations you may incur in your California divorce, you want to modify a California alimony award, or you want to terminate a California alimony award, you are going to need the advice of a seasoned family law attorney.   The family law attorneys at Minella Law Group are able to answer all of your questions about these particular issues. Call the attorneys at Minella Law Group for advice at (619) 289-7948.

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