Of all the issues negotiated in a divorce, spousal support may be the most volatile. It can be very difficult for the paying spouse to imagine providing money to their ex—and they may even feel the ex is trying to “cheat” them. On the other side, the recipient may feel embarrassed, defensive, or even angry about needing support.
How can you navigate this minefield without battle scars at the end of the proceedings? With some knowledge and a good divorce mediator. Here are some common questions about spousal support that will help you understand how it typically works.
1. What Is Spousal Support?
At its core, the concept of spousal support (sometimes called “alimony”) Is the recognition that spouses are financially interdependent and it may take some time and financial support for the spouse with less income to become independent with a similar standard of living. Some of the reasons for a disparity in income include:
- Time away from the workforce due to a mutual decision for one spouse to stay at home to care for children, other relatives, or the household
- A job that pays less
- An inability to work due to health or age
2. Are There Different Types of Spousal Support?
Spousal support comes in three main flavors:
- Temporary support is a legal term in California for support received during the divorce proceedings until a final agreement or judgment is established. This can be court ordered, but your divorce mediator can also help you and your spouse come to an agreement.
- Permanent support is another legal term in California for support received after the divorce proceedings and included in the final agreement or judgment. “Permanent” is a rather misleading term as it simply refers to terms included in the final judgment and it may be of brief or long duration depending on many variables. In marriages of 10 years or more, the court has broad discretion to extend support if the recipient is unable to become self-supporting despite all reasonable efforts.
- Rehabilitative support is more of a descriptive term and it describes the most common type of support awarded. This is support that helps the recipient pay the bills while finding a new job or seeking education, training, or licensing. This type of support typically has a time limit built in.
3. How Long Will I Receive or Pay Spousal Support?
In California, when spousal support is determined in court, it is usually paid for half of the length of the marriage. For example, if you were married for eight years, the paying spouse may be ordered to pay support for four years. Once a marriage lasts longer than 10 years, the court typically will not set a termination date. Rather, the court can modify the terms if something substantially changes, such as income on either side. It’s left to the parties to return to court for such changes to be made.
In a divorce that is settled through mediation, you are not locked in by these guidelines. However, we mention them because they are a good starting point for thinking about what you want your spousal support agreement to look like. Consider them as you work with your spouse in mediation to determine a length that makes the most sense.
4. How Will We Determine the Amount?
Many factors go into calculating the number, including both of your earning capacity, the paying spouse’s ability to pay, assets, and standard of living. Your mediator will be a great help in this process; their years of experience and knowledge will help when calculating an amount that feels fair for both parties. It also can be helpful to consult with a financial planner during this part of the process.
5. What If I Worked While My Spouse Went to School/Started a Business/Etc.?
It’s common for one spouse to support the other for years while they attend college or grad school, seek other professional training, or start a business. They do this willingly because they expect to benefit from future earnings as a household. Then, the divorce comes.
Courts usually take this circumstance into account and so should you during divorce mediation. The spouse that paid most of the bills during that time, and perhaps even paid tuition, may negotiate for some sort of reimbursement.
6. How Is It Paid?
Support is usually paid monthly. If necessary, a court can order it to be deducted automatically from the paying spouse’s paycheck via an Income Withholding Order. This is more common with child support payments. Some couples also agree to a lump sum payment, such as a property or the proceeds from selling a property.
7. Are There Tax Implications?
Until 2018, spousal support was a deductible expense for the payer and taxable income for the payee. Federally, this is no longer the case. However, it is still true in the state of California. If you’re concerned about the tax implications, consult with an accountant during your divorce proceedings.
8. Are There Any Reasons Spousal Support Might End Earlier Than Agreed?
Spousal support ends upon the death of either party or if the recipient remarries or enters into a domestic partnership.
9. What Happens If the Paying Spouse Loses Their Job? Or If the Receiving Spouse Gets a Big Promotion and Raise?
A solid divorce mediation agreement will account for common situations such as these. You may want to include an agreement to meet annually to review — and potentially adjust — the support agreement. Or, you may agree to meet with a mediator should specific scenarios occur, such as the paying spouse significantly losing income or the recipient spouse returning to work after the children reach a certain age.
As you can see, determining how to handle spousal support is no simple task. Don’t go it alone. A good divorce mediation firm can help you navigate the many aspects of spousal support, facilitate calm discussions between you and your spouse, provide expertise, and help you come to an agreement that both of you can live with.
At South Bay Mediation, we have guided more than 400 clients to a divorce agreement. Let us help you, too. Contact South Bay Mediation to set up a call to learn more today.