Spouses frequently believe that spousal support is automatic in all California divorces; however, that is not the case. If the lower-earning wants spousal support, they can certainly ask for it, but that does not mean they will get it. Why is this?
Each couple's situation is different, and more often than not it comes down to the lower-earning spouse's NEED for support and the higher-earning spouse's ABILITY to pay it. For instance, let's say a doctor has been supporting his wife for the five years they've been married.
The doctor and his wife do not have any children, she has a bachelor's degree, and she's in good health. In this scenario, the judge may award her spousal support so she can get back on her feet, but she probably won't get support for more than two-and-a-half years – half the length of the marriage.
Now, some may think, "The doctor earns $200k a year, he should support her for 10 years!" However, the wife is young, healthy, and educated. She shouldn't have any difficulty finding employment. So, there's no apparent reason why she should get support for longer.
On the other hand, let's say the same doctor was married to "Sarah" for 15 years. Sarah dropped out of college when she married the doctor. A year after the wedding, Sarah gave birth to the couple's first child and two more children followed.
Sarah spent the entire marriage at home and raising the couple's three children. Since Sarah and the doctor were married for 15 years, and since she is now almost 40 and has never really held down a job, her situation is very different than the younger wife in the first example.
In this case, her physician husband earns a good living and can afford to pay child and spousal support. Sarah asks for spousal support and the judge agrees to award it. Since the couple were married for over 10 years, the judge decides to award support without an end date.
Even though the judge did not set an end date, it doesn't mean Sarah will receive spousal support forever. Suppose Sarah goes back to college and earns a degree. She gets a good job and becomes self-supporting.
At this point, her ex-husband petitions the court to terminate Sarah's spousal support payments. Since she is now earning $80,000 a year and receiving child support, the judge decides it's time to terminate her spousal support.
Sarah's spousal support payments can also terminate under the following circumstances:
- Sarah or her ex-husband pass away
- Sarah remarries
- Sarah's ex-husband cannot afford to pay her anymore (e.g. he's in an accident or becomes disabled)
- Sarah fails to become self-supporting over the years
- The judge sets an end date for her spousal support
Essentially, spousal support is awarded on a case-by-case basis. If you're the lower-earning spouse, you're in good health and employable, please know that spousal support is not guaranteed. While you may receive spousal support, it's best to start focusing on becoming financially independent, because even if it's awarded, it may only be temporary.
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