Duration Frustration: How Long Is a Payor on the Hook for Spousal Support Payments?

In California, a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage opens a case. A Judgment is the document that closes a case. A Judgment can be reached by agreement (Marriage Settlement Agreement, also known as a Stipulated Judgment) or by a judge’s decision (via a trial). In closing a case, the parties or the court must resolve all outstanding issues. One of those issues is spousal support, also known as alimony.

The amount of spousal support payments depends on the parties’ income, marital standard of living, and the factors listed in California Family Code Section 4320. Then, there is the issue of duration. After absorbing the legal and financial realities, clients often ask, “How long will I have to pay?”

Short term vs. Long term. Permanent vs. Temporary. At Lavinsky Law, our Attorneys are able to determine the best course for you depending on the length of marriage.

The language in your Judgment will dictate how long you have to pay spousal support for. For example, parties can agree to waive or terminate their rights to support; or they can agree to a specific duration, various combinations of payment structures, or lump sum buyout payments. If the parties cannot decide on a duration for payments, the court will.

In California, whether your marriage is a “short-term” marriage or “long-term” marriage matters. In short-term marriages, which California defines as marriages of less than 10 years, there is usually an end date for spousal support payments, and it is generally owed for ½ the length of the marriage. In “long-term” marriages, marriages of 10 years or more, the court can order an end date, or the court can order “permanent” spousal support—meaning there is no end date.

When there is no end date, the standard spousal support order states that one spouse pays the other at a set amount each month until the death of either party, remarriage of the person who receives alimony, or further order of the court. Without a set termination date in the Judgment, the duration of payments and any modification of the spousal support order will depend on whether there is a material change of circumstances that justifies lower payments or termination of payments. Some examples of changes of circumstances are: retirement at retirement age, changes in income, or a receiving spouse’s reduced living expenses.

The duration of payments depends on the particular facts of each case. For more information on this topic, check out California Family Code 4320 and Family Code Section 4336.