California Court Underscores Mandatory Guidelines in Determining Spousal Support

old courthouseIn most divorce cases, one party will seek some amount of monthly spousal support. However, it is not automatically granted to the requesting spouse. In fact, eligibility for spousal support is dictated in large part by statutory provisions. Under Section 4320 of the California Family Code, courts are required to review a list of specified factors in order to determine whether (and to what extent) spouses are entitled to financial maintenance in divorce. Since the judge’s decision as to support will likely affect the parties’ financial status going forward, it is extremely important that you consult with an experienced San Diego family law attorney who will work to protect your interests and legal rights.

A recent case illustrates the significance of understanding how the Family Code applies to a party’s request for spousal support in divorce. Here, the couple began living together (in the wife’s home) prior to their marriage. While they both contributed to living expenses, the wife owned the house separately. The husband had given the wife a wedding ring valued at $40,000, and the couple got married in January 2006. She is a physician, and he worked, until 2007, as a human resources manager at Home Depot. He was laid off from his job in 2008. Once the parties were married, the wife signed a deed granting title to the house to the husband, for the alleged purpose of refinancing the home at a better interest rate. He later re-conveyed the house to himself and the wife as “joint tenants.”

The couple separated in September 2010, and the husband filed for divorce the following month. Among other things, the husband sought spousal support and attorney fees. The trial court denied the husband’s request for support, even though the court plainly stated that it did not have facts to “enunciate the [Section] 4320 factors.” This means that the court did not review the entirety of the factors prior to denying the request for support. The husband appealed, arguing that the court erred by failing to separately analyze each factor under Section 4320.

The California court of appeals reviewed the law as it applies to a request for spousal support. The statute specifically requires the court to consider all 16 factors listed therein, including a couple’s marital standard of living, each party’s earning capacity and marketable skills, the age and health of the parties, and many other factors. Under California law, courts do not have discretion to ignore any one factor, but they must recognize and apply each one to the case at hand. Furthermore, failing to adhere to this standard is considered “reversible error.” Here, the lower court recognized this duty to review all Section 4320 factors but then declined to do so, citing insufficient evidence to establish the couple’s standard of living. But the court of appeals pointed out that there was plenty of evidence to make a determination pertaining to the marital standard of living. The court of appeals ruled that this omission was grounds for reversal of the decision to deny spousal support. The court remanded this issue back to the trial court for further review.

As we learn from this unpublished opinion, it is extremely important to understand the laws applicable to your divorce case. Consulting with an experienced family law attorney is an effective way to be sure you are aware of your financial and legal rights in divorce. For more than 20 years, Roy M. Doppelt has been representing clients in divorce matters in San Diego and throughout Southern California. For a free consultation with a dedicated and experienced family lawyer, contact Doppelt & Forney through the law firm’s website or give us a call toll-free at (800) ROY IS IT (769-4748).

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