After a divorce, both parties want to continue to live in the style to which they have become accustomed. And California law supports this desire by requiring courts to base spousal support awards on the standard of living established during the marriage. Fam C §4330(a). Ah, but the rub can be in determining what exactly was the marital standard of living.
The “marital standard of living” is intended to be a general description of the station in life the parties had achieved by the date of separation.
In determining the marital standard of living, the actual standard (i.e., actual expenditures) normally controls, but sometimes that can result in an unreasonably high measure of the marital standard of living. For example, if the parties live beyond their means, the trial court may base its spousal support award on the parties’ income instead of their expenditures.
Similarly, when the parties’ standard of living during the marriage is unreasonably high, not only because they lived beyond their means, but also because one party worked excessive hours, the marital standard of living should be set at what would have been a reasonable standard if the earning party had worked at a reasonably human pace.
Focusing on expenditures can also produce an unreasonably low measure of the marital standard of living. For instance, when the parties live very modestly in comparison to their means, using substantial funds for savings and investments, the marital standard of living may be set at a standard that allows for that level of savings and investments.
Keep in mind that it’s all about the couple’s pre-separation lifestyle — the support award doesn’t need to match the post-separation standard of living of the supporting spouse.
So, what does the court look to as evidence of the marital standard of living? Here are some examples:
- Family and vacation homes and residences during marriage
- Rental properties and other sources of unearned income
- Automobiles, boats, airplanes, and other vehicles during marriage
- Destinations and types of vacations taken
- Schools attended by children (private or public)
- Pension, profit sharing, retirement, bonuses, stock plans, and other employment benefits
- Stocks, bonds, brokerage and investment accounts, and other evidence of wealth
- Special needs for parents and children
- Social activities, including club, arts, and other memberships
- Personal property, including furniture, furnishings, coins, stamps, artwork, antiques, jewelry, and other valuable items and collections
- Charitable, religious, and other donations and contributions
- Inheritances and gifts received before, during, and after marriage
- Debts and evidence of outstanding loans
For everything you need to know about spousal support issues, turn to CEB’s Family Law Financial Discovery, chap 7 and Practice Under the California Family Code: Dissolution, Legal Separation, Nullity, chap 6. Also check out CEB’s program on Presenting a Support Case (Without a Forensic), available On Demand.
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