California law uses the term "spousal support," also known as alimony, to describe payments that one divorcing spouse is ordered to pay the other to maintain the lesser-earning spouse at the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage. In part, spousal support is intended to protect an untrained spouse who has been out of the workforce for a significant time, so much so that she cannot readily find lucrative employment. Generally, each spouse is expected to support himself or herself at a point in the future and spousal support is only to tide over the lesser-earning spouse until that point.
Marriage of Long Duration
Under California Family Code Section 4336, a divorce court does not automatically lose jurisdiction after dissolving a marriage of long duration; therefore, it may continue to amend its orders over time. Absent evidence to the contrary, the court must presume that a marriage of 10 years or more is a marriage of long duration; it may also find that a marriage of less than 10 years qualifies as a marriage of long duration. Such a designation will affect any award of spousal support.
California courts are required by law to consider several factors set out in Family Code Section 4320 when awarding spousal support. Many of the factors involve the ages, assets, needs, earnings and employment opportunities of the respective spouses. Duration of the marriage is included in the list of factors to be considered. The goal is for the supported spouse to be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time. Except in marriages of a long duration, this time period is generally one-half the length of the marriage; however, the court can assign spousal support for a longer or shorter period of time.
Impact of Long Duration
When the court is determining how long spousal support payments should last, it must apply a different standard to marriages of long duration. It cannot presume that one-half the length of the marriage is a reasonable period of time for spousal support. The court may order a lesser or greater period of support after evaluating the factors set forth in the Family Code and considering the circumstances of the parties; it may even decide that the lesser-earning spouse in a marriage of long duration will never be able to support himself or herself and requires support for life. Lifetime alimony is not, however, either required or automatic for long duration marriages.