Factors Considered for Spousal Support

Let’s emphasize with the most important factor, the length of the marriage. A marriage of medium length, approximately four to nine years, often results in spousal support for several years because of the facts present. One spouse, still overwhelmingly the woman, left work to manage the home and raise the children. Both parents made a commitment the mother would be home for each child for several years, or perhaps until each child starts school. Out of the work force for six years, the mother cannot now command a wage that will sustain her. Her share of the day care costs adds to her burden. She needs spousal support.

Another marriage of the same length and number of children may not result in any spousal support because of its different facts. Assume both parents continue to work, with the exception of the mother’s maternity leave. The income earned by each increases steadily. A need for spousal support is present only if the income of one parent is inadequate to sustain that parent. Child support is a separate issue. Day care expenses are also child-related expenses, prorated based upon net income.

Although the length of the marriage is the primary factor, it is not applied in isolation. The length of the marriage lends more, or less, weight to the other factors. The pre-separation status quo—the standard of living or life style established during the marriage—is usually considered next. Why? It makes sense! You and your spouse made a decision to establish a certain lifestyle. As more years are spent together, the expectation that it will continue increases. Exceptions to this occur when the wage earner has been working excessive hours or the family has been living beyond its means. If funds aren’t available to maintain the status quo after divorce, adjustments are mandatory in lifestyle of each spouse. However, if adequate funds exist and it is a lengthy marriage, a spousal support order will ensure each spouse carries on the same lifestyle.

A lengthy marriage for purposes of setting spousal support is defined by the legislature as ten years. "Lengthy marriage" is also a term of art developed by the courts for a conclusion sometimes reached upon examining the entire nature of a marriage, not merely its duration. It means the court finds one spouse is dependent upon the other, and that this dependency was reasonably established. It can also mean the court finds one spouse has changed position in justifiable reliance upon the other. The conditions prompting this conclusion usually occur in marriages of fourteen years or more; however, courts have found them in seven-year marriages.

The finding by the court that this is a "lengthy marriage" implies a need for spousal support of unlimited duration. The common example is the Displaced Homemaker. She left her outside job at her husband’s request to manage the house and raise the children. After fifteen years, she has no marketable skills. After twenty-five years, she can no longer be expected to earn more than minimal wage. She may never become self-supporting.

The California Legislature mandated spousal support of an indefinite duration following marriages of ten years or more. Spousal support following a factually lengthy marriage as determined by the court is often whatever the spouse needs, for as long as she needs it. Support may go on forever after a lengthy marriage unless there is some intervention, such as remarriage, or vocational rehabilitation, discussed after the next two sections.