Ongoing spousal support is a hot-button and often-litigated issue in many divorces. Changes in case law have made the recipients of permanent spousal support look back nostalgically to the days of long-term support awards with no questions asked, compared to today’s scrutiny and pressure to become self-supporting. The qualifier “permanent” has been a misnomer for some time now. The trend against long-term support continues.
Under Family Code §4336(b), a court cannot terminate jurisdiction over spousal support in a marriage of long duration, which means 10 years or more. In a recent decision by the Sixth District Court of Appeal, the court did just that and may have made another dent in a supported spouse’s expectation for long-term support.
The parties in In re the Marriage of Grimes v. Mou (2020) 45 Cal.App.5th 406 were married for 11 years. Both spouses worked throughout the marriage, with the husband earning significantly more than the wife. Both spouses were in their forties when they separated and held college degrees. Immediately after their separation, the wife ended her work as a treasury analyst contractor. The court ordered her to search for work. Almost three years after separation, the wife agreed to an imputation of income following a vocational evaluation. The court found that the wife had not been “appropriately and fully focused” in her search for employment.
The trial court concluded that the wife was self-supporting but unable to maintain and retire with the upper middle-class standard of living the couple had during their marriage. After analysis of the Family Code §4320 factors, the trial court awarded the wife permanent spousal support of what the wife termed in her appeal a “mere $2,000 per month” for an additional two years. The wife claimed this amount to be “far below her actual needs.”
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s order in an opinion written by Justice Allison Danner and cited prior rulings that the era of “lifelong alimony as a condition of the marital contract of support” is over. Permanent spousal support today is used as a tool only until the supported spouse can support himself or herself, even if that level of support does not rise to the marital standard of living.
Thus, even though Family Code §4336(b) distinguishes between marriages of long and short duration, in practice the difference may be fading. The wife in Grimes v. Mou had the education and was of an age that allowed her to re-enter the workforce easily. The trial court seemed to have taken issue with wife’s lack of efforts to secure employment. However, the same may not be true for a spouse who has been out of work for a decade or more or a spouse who may be close to retirement age. As family law practitioners, we should alert our clients early in the case to make every effort to support themselves, however scary and unexpected that prospect may be.
About the Author:
Susanne Stolzenberg is Secretary of the BASF Family Law Section and a solo family law practitioner in San Francisco County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.