You may have heard the phrase “marital standard of living” before, especially if you have been involved in litigation for spousal support. Courts usually indicate that the amount of spousal support has to be sufficient to maintain the spouse in the “standard of living established during the marriage.”
But what does this really mean?
In a good number of marriages, the division of responsibilities between the spouses is such that one person works and generates income, while the other takes care of domestic duties and child care. The latter, who may have put his or her career on hold for a number of years, can have little to no capacity to earn any income after the divorce or the dissolution of the marriage. Spousal support, therefore, seeks to minimize the impact of the divorce on the parties, and depending on the kind of lifestyle the couple had prior to the judgment or decree of divorce, may order the higher-earning spouse to pay support to the lower-earning spouse.
Amount of Spousal Support
The marital standard of living goes a long way to determining the amount of spousal support that the higher-earning party may be ordered to pay. It is the standard of living that they had during the marriage and the standard which guides the amount of spousal support.
But there are a variety of factors that go into determining how much a party should pay for spousal support, how much a party should receive, and when and how support should terminate. Courts usually decide on the appropriateness of spousal support at any given time on a case-by-case basis, and case law is rife with personal circumstances that impact the determination of support. For instance: the age and health of the parties; a high earning capacity but a refusal to engage in work, or a refusal to engage in higher-paying work; obligations to pay child support; physical disability; remarriage or cohabitation with a new partner; obligation to care for and support new children; any history of domestic violence, among others.
Factors that guide the determination of the marital standard of living
While the personal circumstances of the parties can give the court a wide latitude of discretion in determining spousal support, the California Family Code section 4320 provides a list of factors that can guide the court in determining the marital standard of living. These include:
- The supported party’s marketable skills;
- The job market for those skills;
- The time and expenses required for the acquisition of education and training to develop such skills;
- The need for retraining or education to acquire more marketable skills for employment; and
- The extent to which the period of unemployment during the marriage negatively impacted the party’s earning capacity
Whether or not the supported party has sufficient earning capacity will still be affected, however, by the best interests of the children. If, for example, the supported party has sole and primary custody of the children, and he or she still needs to devote time, energy and care to the children such that her earning capacity is affected, then spousal support should not be diminished if it negatively impacts the welfare of the children.
Ability to Pay
The supporting party’s capacity to pay is also considered in determining the amount of spousal support that he or she is obligated to pay.
Ability to pay encompasses not only income derived from employment, but also the value of the assets under his control, including his or her separate properties. But this goes both ways, which is to say that the obligations and assets of both parties are taken into consideration.
For instance, if the supported party’s estate, including any assets received from the division of the community property, is sufficient to properly support him or her, the support he or she is receiving may be modified and decreased or discontinued altogether.
In any case, the goal of support is still to enable the party to be self-supporting, so a showing that a party is, in fact, self-supporting to a reasonable extent that his or her standard of living is not significantly affected, in addition to any other relevant factors that can guide the court in arriving at a just and equitable arrangement, spousal support may be modified accordingly.