Like many divorced people, Steve Clark finds himself thinking about the financial impact the end of his marriage has had on his life. By the time his divorce was finalized, Clark, an independent software consultant from Huntington Beach, found that he had spent over $100,000 in court costs and legal fees. He is also paying his ex-wife of 25 years permanent spousal support of $1,000 per month.
As a result of his divorce, Clark learned that California family laws are riddled with rules that are holdovers from the days when husbands were considered to be the only breadwinners in a family. “Prior to my divorce,” said Clark, “I was completely unaware of current family laws in California that state marriages of 10 years or more in length are subject to potential ‘lifelong’ alimony payments by the higher-income provider.” These rules are the reason that Clark is spearheading an effort to overhaul spousal support laws in California, and in some cases, eliminate it entirely.1
California Spousal Support Laws: Too Much Judicial Discretion?
Spousal support was originally instituted as a way to alleviate the sudden loss of an income supply to a non-wage-earning or lower-wage-earning spouse. The practice of awarding spousal support has also been justified by the fact that often one spouse foregoes a career to support the family. When such a person’s marriage ends, he or she needs time to develop job skills to become self-sufficient. In other cases, spousal support is awarded to maintain a style of living to which the spouse has become accustomed.
Many people do not realize that spousal support and child support payments are separate obligations, and that the two payments are not determined in the same manner. For child support payments, the court has to follow a strict set of well-defined guidelines when determining the amount that will be paid. No such guidelines are in place for long-term spousal support. The judge has very broad discretion to set what the higher earning spouse will have to send to his or her ex, and in some cases, the payment is for life.
According to Clark, the current system codifies notions of gender roles that are outdated given the makeup of today’s workforce. Women account for approximately 47 percent of the workforce in the United States, and many wives earn more than their husbands. Clark states that the purpose of spousal support has morphed into a form of punishment and is merely a retaliatory tactic that results in harm to the children’s financial and emotional stability.2
The Ballot Initiative
Clark is seeking signatures for a ballot initiative that would overhaul and eventually eliminate California’s spousal support system. If Clark’s initiative passes, spousal support would no longer be awarded during divorce, legal separation or annulment proceedings. The initiative would also retroactively affect divorces that currently have resulted in spousal support payments. For payments that are limited to ten years, the payments will cease immediately unless a court grants an extension of up to one year. For existing awards that are over 10 years, the awards will be reduced at 20 percent per year over five years, at which point the payments will end. For cases where the receiving spouse is a stay-at-home parent, the awards would be made on a case-by-case basis.3
We Would Like to Hear What You Think
We at Wallin & Klarich would like you to share your feedback on this topic. Should California eliminate spousal support entirely? Or does spousal support still play a vital and necessary role in the post-divorce life of a receiving spouse? What are some alternatives to spousal support that you feel could mitigate the effects of a divorce on a spouse who earned little or no money as a result of foregoing a career to raise a couple’s children? Please feel free to leave your comments below.
1. Bob Garcia, “Businessman seeks initiative to overhaul ‘outdated’ California alimony law,” Los Angeles Times, May 20, 2015, available at http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-alimony-initiative-california-20150520-story.html↩
2. Matt Coker, “Huntington Beach Activist’s Voter Initiative Would End Alimony in California,” OCWeekly.com, May 11, 2015, available at http://blogs.ocweekly.com/navelgazing/2015/05/steve_clark_end_alimony_initiative_calalimonyreformorg.php↩