The Effect of Artificially High and Low Marital Standards of Living on Spousal Support Awards
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It is a basic axiom of spousal support law that the dependent spouse is entitled to live after the divorce at the same standard of living he or she enjoyed during the marriage. This rule may not apply at all if the marriage is extremely short, and all spouses must make reasonable efforts to maximize their own earning capacity. Where the marriage is of reasonable duration and the earning capacities of the parties are significantly disparate, however, the general rule is that the dependent spouse should receive sufficient support to cover the difference between his or her earning capacity and the income needed to maintain the marital standard of living.
The general rule on the marital standard of living is subject to a number of exceptions. Indeed, the general rule is more of an ideal than a reality. A California court noted:
The Legislature has never specified that spousal support must always meet the needs of the supported spouse as measured by the marital standard of living. Indeed, it would be unwise to do so. In most instances, it is impossible at separation for either party to have sufficient funds to continue to live in the same lifestyle enjoyed during the marriage. After separation the parties have two house-holds rather than one, and with California’s high housing costs this represents a significant increase in living expenses.
Thus, the court questioned whether it is possible for both spouses to live after the divorce at the marital standard of living. Given that two persons cannot live separately as inexpensively as they can live together, a more accurate statement of the general rule might be that both spouses should live as close as reasonably possible to the marital standard of living, and that any inevitable shortfall should be shared by both spouses equally.
Further, even under the modified general rule, there are two types of cases where the marital standard of living is still not a good measure of support needs. First, in some cases the parties lived during the marriage at a standard of living higher than they could reasonably afford. The difference between income and expenditures in these cases was covered by an accumulation of debt. Such borrowing can only postpone the day of reckoning, and by the time of divorce the bills have generally come due. If the marital standard of living were used as the measure of support in these cases, the court would be forcing the parties to remain in debt forever.
Second, in some cases the parties lived during the marriage at a standard of living lower than they could reasonably afford. If support in these cases were set according to the actual marital living standard, the dependent spouse would be forced to remain at the lower level indefinitely. The wealthier spouse, by contrast, could raise his or her living standard at will. The unfairness posed by this fact pattern is especially acute when the lower standard of living was accepted as a temporary sacrifice for a long-term payoff, and the parties are divorced before the payoff is received. The most common case meeting this fact pattern is the situation where the parties are divorced shortly after one of them graduates from college or from a professional school.
While these two types of cases are at opposite ends of the spectrum, the remedies for the problems they pose are remarkably similar. In both types of cases, the law holds that spousal support should be based upon an objectively reasonable living standard for the income the parties actually earned during marriage, and not upon the living standard the parties actually enjoyed during the marriage.
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