There are two types of support in Family Law cases in California. There is child support, which refers to support intended to assist in providing for the needs of the children involved in the case. Then there is spousal support, sometimes called “Alimony” (The two terms are interchangeable) which is intended to provide spousal maintenance after a divorce proceeding is initiated. During the course of a case, the court may make an order for either, or both, child and spousal support. After the order has been made, the court expects the amounts to be paid.
When the marriages of most couples become irretrievably broken, the most common way to end these marriages is to file for divorce. However, certain extenuating circumstances call for annulling the marriage rather than dissolving it.
There are two distinct categories of marriages in the context of nullities. There are marriages that are void and there are marriages that are voidable.
Megan Fox may pay “manimony”…shows us alimony isn’t just for the ladies anymore!
After a 5 year marriage, Megan Fox filed for divorce from Brian Austin Green in August. While there has been much speculation since then as to whether Fox would be on the hook for spousal support, it seems that Green has just confirmed the possibility by his response filed September 29, 2015, on which he reportedly checked that magic little box requesting spousal support be paid to him by Fox.
In Marriage of Davis, the Supreme Court of California was asked to decide the following question: can spouses truly be “living separate and apart” within the meaning of Family Code section 771(a) if they share the same residence? The Court, in a unanimous decision, held that spouses cannot be separated if they share the same residence.
In Davis, the parties seem to agree that their marriage was “over” sometime around June of 2006. However, they continued to reside together, for the sake of their children, until 2011. The wife contended that the date of separation was in 2006, while Husband, relying on the fact that wife did not move out until 2011, argued a date of separation in 2011.
The Court’s decision came down to statutory interpretation. The Court held that, on its face, the plain meaning of the term “living separate and apart” required a physical separation. To the extent there was some ambiguity in the statute, the Court noted that the term “living separate and apart” had not been altered in subsequent iterations of the statute since 1870. The Court also noted that, in 1870, “living separate and apart” required that the wife establish “her own place of residence.”
The Court did not address, and therefore did not foreclose the possibility, that spouses could live separate and apart in separate residences while “they continued to literally share one roof.” For now, what this means exactly is up to the lower courts, or possibly the legislature.
Determining the date of separation can be critically important in many family law cases. As the community exists only between the date of marriage and the date of separation, it is only after the parties separate that they begin to accumulate separate property. If the parties aren’t separated, the spouse will, for instance, continue to have a one-half interest in the other spouse’s earnings. Over the course of many years, this can make a difference of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. The date of separation is also important in spousal support, as the duration of spousal support heavily depends upon the length of the marriage.
In recent years, same-sex marriage has undergone a radical transformation in California and in the rest of the nation. The Law Offices of Nancy J. Bickford is well aware of these important changes in the law.
On June 16, 2008, the Supreme Court of California held that California’s same-sex marriage ban was not permitted under the California constitution. On November 5, 2008, however, the California electorate amended the California constitution through Proposition 8. This reinstated the same-sex marriage ban in California.
On August 4, 2010, United States District Court Chief Judge Vaughn Walker declared that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional under the Federal (not California) constitution. However, through appeal, the order was stayed until the United States Supreme Court reinstated Judge Walker’s ruling on technical grounds in Hollingsworth v. Perry. The Hollingsworth v. Perry opinion was issued on June 26, 2013 and allowed same-sex marriages to resume in California.
On that same date, the United States Supreme Court issued the landmark Windsor v. United States decision, striking down language in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that limited the definition of marriage to opposite-sex couples. Before Windsor v. United States, same-sex couples throughout the nation were deprived of many federal benefits opposite sex couples enjoyed. Justice Kennedy, describing some of these benefits, wrote as follows in the majority opinion:
“Under DOMA, same-sex married couples have their lives burdened, by reason of government decree, in visible and public ways. By its great reach, DOMA touches many aspects of married and family life, from the mundane to the profound. It prevents same-sex married couples from obtaining government healthcare benefits they would otherwise receive… It deprives them of the Bankruptcy Code’s special protections for domestic-support obligations … It forces them to follow a complicated procedure to file their state and federal taxes jointly … It prohibits them from being buried together in veterans’ cemeteries.”
After the Windsor decision, same-sex married couples did not face these burdens in California or other states that allowed same-sex marriage. However, it was not until June 26, 2015 that the Supreme Court ruled that all same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional in Obergefell v. Hodges. This has a practical effect for same-sex couples in California that were already married: they can now freely move to any other state and that state will be required to recognize the marriage. This was an unsettled issue until Obergefell.
There are still unique issues that same-sex couples face. For example, what happens when a same-sex couple had a domestic partnership and then married after it became legal to do so in California? Does this couple have to both terminate the domestic partnership and dissolve the marriage? In cases like this, what is the length of the “marriage” for purposes of spousal support?
If you’re a big fan of the “Simpson’s” you may have heard that Harry Shearer, the voice of several of the shows iconic characters, is leaving the show. When a big star makes a movie or a star leaves a television show it usually makes the news, but people retire, change jobs, or are laid off on a daily basis. What do you do if you are involved in a Family Law proceeding and your income changes?
A change in your career can have far reaching effects on many aspects of your Family Law case, but it most immediately applicable to both child and spousal support orders. If there is a current order in place, it should tell you the protocol for informing your spouse of a change in your financial circumstances, but just informing your spouse may not protect you if your ability to pay your support award is compromised. Conversely, if you are receiving support and your ex-spouses income increases you may not be entitled to the increase solely because you are informed of the change.
Even when a change in income occurs, the court can usually only enforce the current order it has on file. Therefore, whether you need to reap the benefit of increased income or reduce the burden of an order you can no longer afford, you need to file the request with the court to modify your support to match your current financial circumstances. The court will then make a ruling in keeping with you and your ex spouse’s current financial situation.
Of course financial issues always become complex if one party is self-employed and/or owns a business, and it may require a more in depth analysis. The Law Offices of Nancy J. Bickford is experienced in representing clients in all aspects of any financial issues that come before the Family Court and we are experienced in dealing with the complexity of self-employed parties and business owners.
Once initial papers are filed to get the divorce process started (the petition and response) the next step is typically to gather all pertinent information regarding each spouse’s financial and personal information. Although both parties are required to prepare and serve declarations of disclosure, which outline each party’s income, expenses, assets and debts, discovery is usually a necessary tactic to gather additional information.
Discovery is vital to the divorce process because it allows both sides to examine exchanged information and documentation before determining how to properly divide up assets and debts. Revelations made during the discovery process are also helpful in calculating the appropriate amount of child support and spousal support.
Discovery can occur informally, formally or both. Informal discovery is when the parties and their attorneys simply request specific information or documentation in an email or letter to the opposing party/opposing counsel. Informal discovery indicates that the parties are willing to work together, but simply need more information to move forward in the case.
Formal discovery, on the other hand, typically indicates that the party is more litigious because formal discovery requires that opposing party and opposing counsel follow rigid procedures and timelines in responding to the discovery requests.
Discovery, whether formal or informal, may include some or all of the following: Interrogatories, Requests for Admission, Document Production and depositions.
- Interrogatories are written questions from one spouse to the other that must be answered under penalty of perjury. The interrogatories may relate to any issue that is relevant to the divorce proceeding, such as employment information, details regarding financial accounts and information regarding the party’s health or living situation.
- Requests for Admission, although not often utilized in family law, can be helpful when you need a party to admit or deny specific facts regarding divorce related issues.
- Demand for Production of Documents are particularly helpful when the so called “out-spouse” does not have access to financial statements, documentation relating to a spouse’s business, tax documents, etc. It also is a way to get important information that a spouse may be trying to hide.
- Depositions are when an attorney asks the opposing party (or expert, witness, etc.) a handful of questions during a face-to-face interview. Responses are required to made under oath. A court reporter will draft a transcript of everything that is said during the deposition. Depositions are helpful to get important facts out of the other party and also to see how that person will appear and conduct themselves at trial.
Sometimes during divorce proceedings one spouse may claim to suffer from a disability that affects their ability to work. When your spouse claims to be disabled, you might wonder if there is anything that you can do about it. It may sound awful to question the honesty of your once beloved spouse especially as it relates to a medical condition. But sometimes further exploration is necessary to determine the true extent of your spouse’s disability and its effect on their ability to work. This is especially the case if your spouse has already given you reason not to trust them or if your spouse has made it apparent that they are hungry for money and will do anything to make you “pay up”.
Is the Disability Really Valid?
A spouse may have a non-specific claim of disability for conditions such as stress or depression, which might affect their ability to return to work. If you have doubts about the validity of the disability it may be important to investigate further.
You Agree Disability is Valid, but Does it Really Impact Employment?
If your spouse was diagnosed with a disability during your marriage, then you might be less likely to question the validity or existence of the disability. However, you might still question whether your spouse’s disability truly impacts their ability to pursue all forms of employment. While your spouse’s disability might impact certain types of work, that doesn’t mean that there are absolutely no fields of work out there that your spouse might still be able to do despite their disability. For example, if your spouse has a physical disability, then a labor intensive job is likely not even an option. But that doesn’t mean that your spouse can’t still work a desk job that doesn’t require any physical labor or strenuous movement.
Independent Medical Examination
An Independent Medical Examination (“IME”) is a discovery tactic that many family law attorneys recommend their clients consider when a spouse’s disability, if any, is at issue. An IME is a physical or mental examination of an individual done by a doctor, physical therapist or chiropractor who has not previously been involved in that individual’s care.
In family law cases, the purpose of the medical examination is typically to enable the Examiner to form an opinion:
• if, and to what extent, the spouse being examined is able to work • if and to what extent she has any limitations that limit her ability to work • the hours she can work • the conditions under which she can work • other limiting factors her illness creates in order to be productive in the workplace.
In essence, an IME is one way to help determine what limitations to employment exist as a result of the spouse’s medical condition. Either your spouse will need to stipulate to the IME or you will need to show good cause in order to obtain an order from the Court for an IME.
An IME is different than a vocational evaluation, which is used to determine the spouse’s ability and opportunity to work. Once the IME report is ready, you might consider also hiring a Vocational Evaluator to give an opinion as the spouse’s ability and opportunity for employment in light of the limitations due to the person’s medical condition.
The purpose of going to all of the trouble of determining first whether your spouse has a disability and then to what extent that disability does or does not limit employment typically has to do with calculation of support. For instance, if your spouse is currently not working but both the IME and Vocational Evaluation support the opinion that your spouse is able to work, then you may request that the court impute income to your spouse for purposes of calculating support.
Spousal support is a hot topic in divorce not only during the divorce process but also after the parties’ divorce judgment has been processed and finalized. We often meet with clients who are currently paying spousal support pursuant to court order and, based on a substantial change in circumstances, would like to request a downward modification of spousal support so they don’t have to fork out so much money each month to their ex-spouse. However, we sometimes also get requests from clients who are the recipients of a spousal support award and would like assistance with getting an upward modification of spousal support so that their ex-spouse actually pays them more each month.
A person currently receiving spousal support pursuant to the initial court order may be inclined to seek an upward spousal support modification if, for example, at the time of divorce the spouse receiving spousal support was making a decent living (and thus the need for spousal support was minimal) but post-judgment that spouse lost their job or has health issues that result in an increased need for spousal support to meet that person’s reasonable needs. Another potential reason that might pique a person’s interest for seeking an upward modification of spousal support includes situations (although quite rare) where the person paying spousal support hits the jackpot on the lottery and arguably now has a much higher ability to pay.
A request for a spousal support modification requires the party seeking the modification to show that there has been a material change of circumstances since the most recent order. The Court will consider whether there has been a significant change in any of the factors set forth in Family Code Section 4320 (the same criteria considered for initial order) when making the subsequent modification order, if any. These factors include, among others, the supporting party’s ability to pay, balance of hardships to each party, and the needs of each party based on the Marital Standard of Living (“MSOL”). The MSOL is the lifestyle enjoyed by the parties during marriage and is typically measured by the parties’ expenditures during marriage, including any funds put towards savings.
While the Court has broad discretion to modify spousal support so long as there has been a material change of circumstances, the Court does not always have jurisdiction to do so. In many cases, spousal support is subject to subsequent modification (or even termination) so long as the spousal support order has not already expired and the court still has jurisdiction over spousal support. However, in accordance with Family Code section 3591(c), if the parties’ judgment has a provision that expressly states that the parties agreed to make the spousal support award non-modifiable, then spousal support cannot be modified post-judgment. In the absence of such an agreement, the court retains jurisdiction to make a decision to increase, decrease or terminate support in a later proceeding (post-judgment) pursuant to a request by one of the parties.
It is also important to note that a post-judgment increase in spousal support being granted by the Court is highly unlikely. While there is nothing that prevents the Court from increasing support, it is simply not very common in California Family Law Courts. And even if the Court is willing to entertain the idea of an upward modification of spousal support, the spousal support award would still be capped at an amount that meets the MSOL. Even if you have an experienced attorney on your side it’s important to have realistic expectations and understand that getting a significant increase in spousal support, or any increase for that matter, is not very common.
Post judgment motions to modify support orders can be tricky. Less so with child support orders; which are often as easy as putting numbers in a program (income, child sharing percentage, statutory deductions, etc) and pressing the return button. However modifying permanent spousal support is another story.
In order to justify a modification of permanent spousal support, you must be able to show “changed circumstances” since the prior order was made. There are many reasons for this requirement, such as the respect for prior court orders, the assumption that the court “got it right” when they made the prior order or simply to avoid parties coming to court every few months to try to get a new spousal support order. (This goes for both the payor wanting a lower support order and the payee wanting more monthly support) In terms of stipulated spousal support orders, the Court gives great deference and respect to the contracts of the parties, and will not disrupt those agreements without substantial justification. The reasons why a party must establish changed circumstances is not nearly as important as understanding the concept itself.
The concept of changed circumstances was summed up particularly well by the Court of Appeal in a case called Marriage of West. The facts of the case are unimportant. What is important is a quote from the decision which said:
“Change of circumstances means a reduction or increase in the supporting spouse’s ability to pay and/or an increase or decrease in the supported spouse’s needs. It includes all factors affecting need and the ability to pay.”
The focus of this blog is a discussion of the various ways a “payor spouse”, that is the spouse ordered to pay support, can move to modify or terminate spousal support post judgment.
Often times, years after a Judgment of Dissolution is entered the payor spouse will suffer a decrease in their income. This could be the result of losing their job, retiring, or loss of investment/passive income. Whatever the reason, the payor is no longer able to afford to pay support at the previous level. Based on the quote from Marriage of West (above), this is a fairly clear cut change of circumstances. [Note: If you voluntarily quit or depress your income, it can be a very different story. See my previous blog on this issue.]
Another situation is when the supported spouse’s needs have decreased. Examples of this are an increase in the supported spouse’s income, a reduction in their monthly expenses, or co-habitation with a non-marital partner. All of these situations result in a reduction in the supported party’s need for support, and are the basis for a motion to modify spousal support post judgment.
Termination of spousal support (not just reducing spousal support to $0), is a whole other animal altogether. Unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, spousal support generally terminates upon the death of either party or the remarriage of the supported party. Any other termination of support will require a showing that the supported spouse has become self-supporting and no longer has a need for support.
Whether a court will terminate spousal support will depend, in large part, on how long your marriage lasted. For marriages lasting less than 10 years the general rule of thumb is a payor spouse will pay spousal support for one-half the length of the marriage. For example if you were married for 8 years, you can expect to pay spousal support for 4 years. Of course, like most things in Family Law, none of this is set stone, so it is important that you discuss the specifics of your case with an experienced family law attorney.
If your marriage lasted more than 10 years, the Court will not terminate spousal support unless you can clearly show that the supported party can meet their financial needs without support. Even if the moving party can make this showing, the court will sometimes set spousal support to $0 per month, but retain the ability to modify the amount in the future should circumstances change.
Another option available to a payor spouse is to request the court make a “Richmond Order.” As you have probably already guessed, this comes from the case Marriage of Richmond. (We are not very creative). Richmond Orders, sometimes called “step-down” orders, are usually made in long term marriages, and have the effect of putting the supported spouse on notice that they will receive support for a specified period of time. At the end of that period of time, support will either be terminated or reduced to $0 unless the supported spouse can prove they have the need for additional support or additional time. These types of orders are favored by the courts and are usually upheld on appeal.
Post Judgment spousal support modifications are a unique issue in family law, so it is important that you consult with a qualified family law attorney who is experienced with these types of cases.