Contrary to what many people believe, a couple’s standard of living is not the single most important factor a court considers when determining an award for spousal support (also known as alimony.) The standard of living is just one of 13 factors courts are required to consider, and judges have discretion to take other issues into account as well.
However, the marital standard of living or MSOL can have a significant impact on support decisions, so it is important to understand what courts are looking at and how this factor works in conjunction with other factors that affect spousal support decisions.
What is the Marital Standard of Living?
Among the issues courts must consider in alimony decisions, the first factor listed in Section 4320 of the California Family Code is the “extent to which the earning capacity of each party is sufficient to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage.” The fact that this issue is listed first is why it often receives so much attention, but courts are expected to give it no more consideration than other factors listed in the statute.
The law does not define “standard of living” but guidance from the California Courts suggests that it includes factors such as the home you lived in during the marriage as well as the type of vehicle you drove, the frequency and types of vacations you enjoyed, and your use of credit. However, court opinions and the wording of the statute itself suggest that marital spending is not the only indication of a standard of living. Couples can spend more than they earn and put themselves into debt, but that does not entitle a spouse to continue those spending habits. So when determining the standard of living enjoyed during the marriage, it may be important to consider income as well as spending. The standard of living acts can act as a ceiling in setting support amounts rather than establishing a minimum one spouse must have to live on.
Calculating the Marital Standard of Living in California
Courts generally review expenses of the couple during the 3-5 years before separation to estimate the standard of living. It is important to provide your attorney with accurate and detailed information to enable your legal advocate to make the best arguments supporting your desired outcome. Expenses to be considered can include costs for:
- The family home and vacation homes
- Vehicles owned including recreational vehicles
- Outstanding loans and debts
- Regular charitable contributions
- Personal property such as jewelry and furniture
- Social activities and memberships
Some of these expenses would remain the same regardless of the size of the household, while others vary depending on the number of people in a home. So-called “PITI” expenses are an example of the former. PITI stands for principal, interest, taxes, and insurance. For many families, PITI expenses make up about 40% of household expenses
By contrast, “user” expenses, which includes everything else such as food, clothing, gasoline, insurance, entertainment, vacations, and gifts will be significantly impacted by the number of people living at the residence for the 3 to 5-year period before the date of separation. Because there are so many expenses to be considered, it can be helpful to work with a forensic accountant who can help reconstruct the standard of living as reflected by evidence of expenses.
How the Earning Capacity of Each Party Factors into the Marital Standard of Living
Remember that the statute frames the standard of living factor in accordance with the earning capacity of each party. The issue involves considering not just how a couple lived but also what standard of living they can maintain.
When looking at earning capacity, the statute orders a court to consider:
- The marketable skills of the supported party
- The job market for those skills
- The time and expenses required for the supported party to acquire the appropriate education or training to develop those skills
- The possible need for retraining or education to acquire other, more marketable skills or employment
- The extent to which the supported party’s earning capacity is impaired time out of the workforce to care for the home
During the 3 to 5-year period upon which the marital standard of living is calculated, there may have been one or two incomes, but even with two solid incomes, when the parties separate, it is highly likely that neither will earn sufficient amounts to be able to meet all the expenses of the previous standard of living. Therefore, during and after the divorce both spouses are likely to experience a standard of living which is lower than they enjoyed together before the date of separation. When the PITI expenses are no longer shared, the cost of maintaining living standards rises considerably.
When the spouse who receives spousal support has sufficient income to meet the standard of living expenses through a combination of earnings, spousal support, and other source of income, there would be a presumption against any increase in the amount of spousal support, because the marital standard of living is met with the current amount. So if the spouse paying support later goes on to earn considerably more money and increases their standard of living, the former spouse is not entitled to a share of the post-divorce success but only support to keep them up to the standard enjoyed during the marriage.
Skilled California Divorce Lawyers Can Help You Reach Your Goals for Spousal Support
Whether you are the spouse paying support or the spouse requesting support, you need to ensure that the court takes into consideration all the facts that weigh in your favor. The experienced divorce attorneys at Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC have over 300 years of combined experience helping clients achieve the best outcomes in divorce. We understand the most effective ways to advocate to achieve your objectives for spousal support. To learn how we can assist with divorce or modification efforts, call us today at 855-426-9111 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.