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Is It Time to Reform California’s Alimony Laws?

Written by Debra Schoenberg, November 25, 2019

When a couple decides to divorce, one important question I’m typically asked is how long does spousal support last? A divorced Huntington Beach man is championing a new ballot initiative that would curtail payments to former spouses to a maximum of five years following a divorce or legal separation. Current California law indicates that former spouses can receive alimony for a reasonable time, which is typically half the length of a less than 10-years-long marriage, however, in longer marriages judges can exercise their discretion and not set an end date for spousal support.

After a judge ordered Clark to pay his former spouse $1,000 a month for the rest of his life following their divorce, Clark decided to take a stand. According to his website California Alimony Reform, the proposed reform is seeking to develop and advocate legislation, regulations and government programs to provide equality in all aspects of marital settlements relating to the dissolution or nullity of marriage. He first attempted to get a reform initiative on the ballot in 2016 but was unsuccessful. He now hopes to collect more than 600,000 signatures needed to put his measure on next year’s ballot.

In California, spousal support or alimony is awarded on a case-by-case basis. Several factors determine whether or not support will be awarded. These factors can also determine how much will be awarded and for how long.  If you and your spouse are having difficulty agreeing to support payments, a court can step in and help resolve the dispute for you.

Alimony is meant to provide economic support to one spouse who may have a lower earning capacity compared to the other spouse. In some cases, one spouse may be the breadwinner while the other manages the household and cares for the children. Although only one person is making money, it is considered that both spouses are contributing to the marriage and the family unit. If the couple were to divorce, the wife might seek spousal support until she can become self-sufficient. In marriages that have lasted more than 10 years, judges can order indefinite spousal support. A judge factors the length of the marriage, the earnings of each spouse, their future earning capacity, and the ability to pay spousal support.

In 2017, Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which made significant changes to individuals’ income tax. According to the Tax Foundation, the tax law eliminated the deductions for alimony payments for people who get divorced in 2019 or later. This means those who pay alimony can no longer deduct those payments from their taxable income and those who receive alimony payments no longer include the receipt of those funds in their taxable income. This is a big change compared to the previous tax applications of alimony payments, causing a significant shift in tax benefit from the one who pays to the recipient. Before the TCJA became effective, alimony payments were deductible to the person paying the support. The more you paid in alimony, the bigger your deduction. The recipient was required to claim the alimony as income, and it would be taxed. However, since the recipient was typically a lower-income individual, the tax bite would not affect them as much. Now, alimony recipients are no longer required to pay tax on their alimony payments or include them in their income. Alimony will remain deductible for those who divorced before 2019.

There are plenty of topics related to the state’s alimony laws that should be the focus of robust discussion. Mr. Clark claims that lawmakers are hesitant to touch the subject of alimony because it is “political suicide” in such a progressive state. While spousal support is a sensitive topic, it should still be carefully considered by the Legislature. With Governor Gavin Newsom in place, who has shown a willingness to support legislative proposals in some areas his predecessor was not, it may be the perfect time for work on alimony reforms in the state to begin.