Once property and debts have been divided in a divorce there are two types of payment which may be ongoing: child support and spousal support (sometimes called “alimony”). California Family Law puts the best interests of children as the top priority. Therefore child support is determined first. If (and so long as) there is not enough income for both, there normally will be no alimony.
California has a formula which calculates what is called “guideline child support.” For a judge, this amount is presumed to be correct unless there are unusual circumstances. Three main factors go into the calculation:
- how many children;
- how much time each parent spends with the children; and
- the after-tax income of each parent.
The formula in effect says that money for the needs of the children should be the first use of income – because the formula does not take into consideration the living expenses of the parents. The amount of child support is always potentially changeable, especially if any of the three factors above change. It ends for a child around the age of 18. There are a few things that the guideline amount is not expected to cover and so the parent paying child support may chip in extra to help pay for them:
- child care required to enable a parent to work or receive training so they can work;
- health insurance and out-of-pocket medical expenses for the children;
- optional, extracurricular activities of the children.
It is possible for parents to agree on an amount that is different from the guideline amount and have this approved by the court. Sometimes being able to consider both parents’ actual living expenses enables the parents to come up with an amount that is more suitable for the family. The idea is to help pay for the basic food, clothing and shelter needs of the children. When the incomes of the parents are greater than this, child support should also help balance the standard of living the children experience with both parents. It is assumed that the paying parent will also pay expenses of the children when the children are in his/her physical custody.
Alimony is more complicated. Judges are required to consider 14 different factors before setting an amount of post-divorce spousal support. There is no formula to be used. For marriages of less than 10 years, an alimony duration of half the length of the marriage is common. Often it is intended both to balance the standards of living and to help the receiving spouse transition towards becoming financially independent. The spouses can agree on an amount and duration they consider to be appropriate and have this approved by the court. Spouses can also agree on whether the alimony is modifiable.
Problems with Child or Spousal Support
Support is often emotionally and financially challenging for both the payor and the recipient. The payor sometimes thinks that it is burdensome and that it gets in the way of the payor being able to get on with his/her life. The recipient often thinks the amount is not enough and often feels weighed down by the need to be both the primary caretaker of the children and an income earner.
Hopefully, both parents understand that child support is intended to meet the needs of the children and give them as good a quality of life as the parents can afford. Whatever child or spousal support is agreed upon or determined by the court, it’s important that the details are clear: on what day(s) each month will it be paid, how will it be paid, and if there any grace period allowed for late payments. When everyone understands exactly what is expected and what it is for, there is less likelihood of problems. It’s important and legally required for the payor to meet his or her obligations. The recipient can make it easier for the payor by occasionally expressing appreciation for the support and letting him/her know how the money is being used.
When support-related problems arise, the spouses should talk about them without delay and without involving the children. Only the parents can take care of the financial needs of the children and so it’s best not to burden the children with any financial concerns. Hopefully the spouses will be able to agree upon solution(s) for the problems. If not, it’s usually best to try mediation before resorting to going to court. The adversarial process in court is nearly always stressful and upsetting for everyone concerned, including the children.