I am in the middle of a case that will likely be going to trial since one of the contested issues is when will spousal support terminate—opposing party wants it continue “until remarriage, death of either parties, or until further order of the court.” Unlike with child support orders (where the court retains jurisdiction to modify orders throughout a child’s minority), courts do not necessarily have the same kind of automatic continuing jurisdiction for reviewing spousal support orders.
In California, marriage over 10 years of duration is defined as a long-term marriage and less than 10 years, the general practice seems to be ½ the duration. For example, if you were married 5 years, expect to pay spousal support for 2 ½ years. Note, this is the common belief and practice but there could be factors necessitating the court and the parties to deviate from the norm.
However, for those long marriages, continuing jurisdiction over spousal support, or when support terminates is a hotly contested matter. The parties could negotiate this issue and reach an agreement, but if not, then this issue proceeds to trial and will be decided by the trial judge. Therefore, the first major principal to keep in mind for a supported party is that without an express reservation of jurisdiction written into a marital termination agreement, the court cannot extend or reinstate spousal support.
The policy of the law is that the right to receive spousal support does not last forever. The “duration of support [should] be limited so that both parties, where possible, can develop their own lives, free from obligations to each other. Marriage of Prietsch & Calhoun (1987) 190 Cal.App.3d 645,663.
In California, Family Code (FC) section 4320 is the key statute governing spousal support. It is clearly noted in this law that the trial courts must consider this policy of becoming self-supporting within a reasonable period of time. In California, there is a rebuttable presumption that a marriage of 10 years or more, calculated from the date of marriage to the date of separation, is a marriage of long duration for purposes of retaining spousal jurisdiction (FC) section 4336(b).
Marriages of less than 10 years could be considered “lengthy” by a court if competent evidence based upon the parties’ circumstances such as the supported spouse is gravely ill. Another issue to keep in mind is the Morrison rule. In the context of lengthy marriages, a court’s failure to expressly reserve jurisdiction to extend future support is appealable abuse of discretion, unless the record clearly indicates that the supported spouse will be able to adequately meet his or her financial needs at the date for the expiration of the spousal support order. This is now codified in FC section 4336(a).
Another is having an order contingent spousal support jurisdiction termination date, also know as the Richmond order. This is an order terminating spousal support jurisdiction on a specified date unless, before the specified date, the supported spouse shows the court good cause to modify the amount and/or duration. The effect is twofold: (1) notice to the supported spouse that there is a specified period of time to become self-supporting and; (2) to shift the burden of production of evidence from the supporting spouse to the supported spouse to show why spousal support should continue.
It is critically important for the supporting party to insure that there is a time limit of support especially in long-term marriages (10 years or more). Otherwise, unlike child support, spousal support (alimony) can last forever.
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