This is an often confusing area of the law for many litigants. Part of the reason for this confusion is that spousal support is generally determined at two different distinct times in a dissolution proceeding. Generally, spousal support is ordered early on in the case, usually after the parties separate, and then again at the end of the case. The former spousal support order is temporary and generally determined by the use of a computer program, and the latter spousal support order is permanent and determined by Family Code, §4320, factors. In other words, both are determined differently using totally different factors. It is further perplexing because permanent spousal support has two components to it: 1) the amount per month to be paid and 2) the length of time it is to be paid. Add to this the “goal” of the State of California that states in Family Code, §4320(l): “The goal that the supported party shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time. Except in the case of a marriage of long duration [over 10 years] … “reasonable period of time” … generally shall be one-half the length of the marriage.” This section (l) is the part that makes this puzzling. Despite the language to the contrary, more often than not, litigants will say, “I want spousal support to end because I have been paying for half the length of our marriage and I am told I can get it terminated.” Nothing can be further from the truth.
A recent case (Marriage of Left) was appealed from the Los Angeles Superior Court which hits this point home. The parties were married June 2001 and separated February 2006, a marriage of 4 years and 8 months. In February 2007, they entered into an agreement wherein Husband would pay to Wife $32,500 per month in spousal support. The parties obtained a “status-only” dissolution (meaning they were divorced but still needed to resolve other aspects of their marriage). In October 2009, Husband filed a motion for the court to terminate the spousal support based, in part, on the fact that Husband had been paying spousal support to Wife for over one-half the length of the marriage and since it was a short-term marriage (under 10 years), it should terminate. The trial court stated that: “the [family] code provides a guideline, not a hard and fast rule that support should be paid for half the length of the marriage.” The trial court reduced the spousal support from $32,500 to $20,000 per month and Husband appealed. The appellate court agreed with the trial court and stated that the ultimate decision as to the amount and duration of spousal support rests within the trial court’s broad discretion and will only be reversed if there is a finding of an abuse of discretion. Since the trial court properly considered all the factors in Family Code, §4320, and since there is nothing that limits the court’s discretion to order support for a greater or lesser length of time, the appellate court found no abuse of discretion.
So, litigants should be aware that even if you have paid spousal support for “half the length of the marriage”, there are other factors that come into play and no one factor is controlling.