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What’s the Difference Between Alimony and Spousal Support?


Things can be drastically different when spouses decide to get divorced. How is the spouse who earns significantly less - or nothing at all - stay on their feet and make ends meet after a divorce? In California, that’s what spousal support - or alimony - is for. 





When couples are married, it’s for spouses to pool their income and resources together. It doesn’t matter if one spouse earns more than the other, or if one spouse doesn’t work at all. The combined earning power of the spouses, together, keeps things running smoothly.





Alimony and Spousal Support Are Synonymous





Alimony is an old phrase that simply refers to one spouse’s legal obligation to provide financial assistance to their spouse after a marriage ends. When you hear the phrase “alimony,” you might automatically think that it refers to a man providing financial assistance to a woman.





That’s why many states - including California - now refer to alimony as “spousal support.” That’s because sex has nothing to do with which spouse might have to pay support after a divorce. It all comes down to earning power and income.





So, at the end of the day, alimony and spousal support are synonymous. Both are phrases that refer to one spouse’s legal obligation to assist their ex financially after a divorce.





Why Alimony Immediately Evokes the Image of Husband Paying Support





For a long time, it was often the husband who was responsible for paying alimony to an ex-wife. Why? There are a couple of reasons.





First, because men traditionally earned more than women. In many households, women didn’t work at all. Instead, women stayed home to raise the family and do what needed to be done around the house. A full-time job? Absolutely. One that comes with a paycheck? No. 





So, after a divorce, the men would find themselves in a more comfortable financial position than their ex-wives. Since they were the primary breadwinners, it was easier for them to move on after a split. The women who didn’t work or only held part-time jobs were faced with more of a challenge after a divorce, financially-speaking. So, it only made sense to order the husbands to provide some financial assistance to their ex-wives. 





Today, that’s not necessarily the case. There are many households where women are the higher-earning spouse. That’s true, despite the fact that a huge gender pay gap still exists.





Second, men often paid support to women because, for a long time, marriage was exclusive to heterosexual couples. Same-sex marriage is relatively new. It’s only been around in California since 2008. At the federal level, gay marriage has only been legal for a few years. Today, however, same-sex marriage is on the rise. So it same-sex divorce. When same-sex couples get divorced, one partner might be ordered to provide spousal support to the other. In those situations, sex clearly isn’t a determining factor in who pays.





If Sex Doesn’t Determine Who Pays Alimony, What Does?





Alimony is decided with these things in mind:





  • What was the standard of living enjoyed by both spouses during the marriage?
  • The financial needs of both spouses to maintain that standard of living, and
  • A spouse’s ability to pay financial support to the other.




When it comes to determining which spouse might have to pay spousal support, sex doesn’t matter. Instead, California courts will consider a number of gender-neutral factors.





These include:





  • Did the spouse requesting alimony significantly contribute to the education, training, license, or career of the other spouse?
  • Can each spouse maintain the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage based on their earning capacity?
  • What separate property does each spouse own?
  • What are each spouse’s financial obligations (debts) and assets?
  • How long did the marriage last?
  • What’s the supporting spouse’s ability to pay, based on their income, assets, standard of living, and earning capacity?
  • Can the spouse who’s requesting alimony work without significantly interfering with the interests of their minor children?
  • How old are the spouses?
  • How is the health of the spouses?
  • Did the spouse requesting support suffer emotional distress because of domestic violence in the marriage?
  • What would the tax implications of an order to pay spousal support be?
  • What, if any, hardships do the spouses suffer?
  • When, if ever, can the spouse seeking alimony become self-supporting?




In truth, a court can consider any factors that are relevant to the situation and case at hand. 





As a general rule of thumb, the length of the marriage, the non-financial contributions of the lesser-earning spouse, and each spouse’s income will play central roles in dictating if alimony is ordered, how much support must be paid, and for how long. 


PUJA SACHDEV

puja@sachdevlegal.com
Puja A. Sachdev is a San Diego attorney and mediator who focuses on family law, child support, and divorce cases and is a Certified Family Law Specialist by the State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization.

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