Family law attorneys can agree that one of the most frequently asked questions throughout divorce cases is, “Will I have to pay alimony?” For those not familiar with the term, alimony refers to court-ordered spousal support. Many people wonder how spousal support is calculated and how long it lasts. This is where the marital standard of living comes in.
What is marital standard of living? 

Marital standard of living is the financial reference point the court utilizes to determine the amount and duration of spousal support in marriage dissolution. The court analyzes circumstances detailed in Cal. Fam. Code §4330(a) to make the determination. Marriage of Ostler & Smith (1990) 223 Cal.App.3d 33.

How is it calculated? 

The marital standard of living is calculated from several factors detailed in Cal. Fam. Code §4320. The court weighs each factor and determines the appropriate amount a spouse must pay and for how long they must pay it. Not every case will warrant an order for spousal support—if each party is relatively self-supportive and incomes are close to equal, then there may be no need to determine alimony. Additionally, if the court does not effectively consider all factors listed in Fam. Code §4320, then the order can be reversed.

Vacations, standard of living, shopping habits, child care-taking etc. are all things that will be considered in calculating spousal support. Generally, the spouse who makes less money or is dependent on the other will be awarded spousal support. If the marriage is 10 years or more, spousal support can be ordered for an indefinite amount of time (or until the spouse becomes self-supporting, remarries, or dies). However, if the marriage is younger than 10 years, spousal support is generally only ordered for half the length of the marriage. Spousal support is tax deductible, however, for the spouse who is ordered to pay it.

 How heavily weighed is the marital standard of living when determining spousal support?

The marital standard of living is one of 14 factors weighed by the court, but not necessarily the most important. The goal of the alimony process is to come to a reasonable result under the facts and circumstances of the case.

That being said, if the standard of living is not realistic then the court will address this in its investigation of other factors. For example, if a married couple spends well beyond their means and lives on debt, the court will find their marital standard of living to be unreasonably high. According to In Re Marriage of Weinstein (1991), the court is “not required to maintain an over extended lifestyle based heavily on borrowing.” The same applies for overly frugal lifestyles as well. If a couple spends very little, the court should not solely consider the depressed standard of living, but the potential as well.

Passage of time may diminish the marital standard of living’s importance:

The more time that passes between the marital separation, the less the marital standard of living will be taken into consideration. For example, if a couple is married for 12 years from 1985 to 1997, then separates for four years until 2001, the standard of living while the couple was married will not be as relevant. If one spouse can provide evidence that the other was self-supportive during the years of separation, then the lifestyle the couple had during the marriage will become less important in making the determination of spousal support. The more time that passes, the more likely the court will be willing to consider other factors in addition to marital standard of living, like education, skillset, etc.

A post-judgment modification can also be made if the court finds reasonable evidence that the spouse who was receiving child support over a long period of time has become self-sufficient or has the capability to become self-sufficient through seeking employment. How much weight is given to each factor will depend on the case at hand, but passage of time can be critical in determining the weight of marital standard of living.

In Re Shaughnessy is a perfect example of how spousal support can be amended in a post-judgment modification request. In the 2006 case, Greg Shaughnessy was ordered to pay $2,000 a month to his ex-wife Michelle of 15 years. The couple separated in 1995, and Greg had been paying spousal support for nearly 10 years before he filed his post-modification request. In his request, he claimed his Michelle had the earning capacity and opportunity to supplement her spousal support. She was working as a self-employed florist and was also receiving $20,000 a year in support from her parents. After examining the facts of the case, the court reduced the spousal support from $2,000 to $1,000 a month and ordered a termination date of June 30, 2006 unless Michelle could demonstrate a compelling reason to extend the duration of the spousal support.

Ultimately, Family law judges have a difficult task of making the alimony order at the time of judgment, much like family law attorneys struggle to come up with a number that seems reasonable. However, in post-judgment proceedings, due to the passage of time, the court has more to consider (all other factors of Section 4320) than just the marital standard of living, which may or may not apply anymore. Speak with an attorney to see what your options may be for modifying your alimony payment.

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