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Spousal Support- What is Marital Standard of Living

Question Presented: How should the parties’ marital standard of living be calculated for purposes of spousal support?

Applicable Law: The California Family Code requires courts to exercise their discretion in awarding spousal support based on the standard of living established during the marriage [Fam.C.§4330(a)]. In addition, several of the §4320 specifically-enumerated factors are tied to the parties' standard of living: (1) §4320(a) - the extent to which the parties' respective earning capacities enable them to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage; (2) §4320(c) - the supporting party's ability to pay spousal support, taking into account (among other factors) his or her standard of living; and (3) §4320(d) - the parties' respective needs based on the standard of living established during the marriage. Further, the court is required to make specific factual findings with respect to the standard of living during the marriage (whether or not such findings are requested). [Fam.C.§4332]

These statutory provisions effectively incorporate the case law consensus that the marital standard of living should be used as a point of reference in the court's weighing process; i.e., spousal support awards, in terms of both amount and duration, should reflect the parties' accustomed standard of living during marriage. [Marriage of Smith (1990) 225 CalApp 3d 469, 484; Marriage of Kerr (1999) 77 CalApp 4th 87, 94; see also Marriage of Williamson(2014) 226 CalApp 4th 1303, 1316; Marriage ofFicke (2013) 217 CalApp 4th 10, 24 – marital standard of living is used as "baseline" for establishing each party's needs].

Broadly, the payor spouse should not be required to underwrite the other spouse for purposes of providing him or her a better lifestyle than established during marriage; nor should a support award impinge on the obligor spouse's ability to attain a better post-divorce lifestyle. By the same token, support should be awarded (and jurisdiction retained) if, after weighing the totality of the circumstances, the supported spouse cannot maintain the marital standard of living without assistance from the other spouse who has the ability to pay. [See generally, Marriage of Hoffmeister (1987) 191CalApp 3d 351, 362-363; Marriage of Smith, supra, 225 CA3d at 488; and Marriage of Kerr, supra]

In most cases, dissolution means neither party will be able to maintain the marital standard of living – i.e., because it costs more to maintain two households than one, each spouse typically will have to take a "step down" for some time. [Marriage of McTiernan & Dubrow (2005) 133 CA4th 1090, 1107; see also Marriage of Ficke, 217 CalApp 4th at 24 – Legislature "has not expressed any preference that the 'standard of living established during the marriage' be maintained for its own sake"; Marriage of Khera & Sameer (2012) 206 CalApp 4th 1467, 1483 – legislature never specified support must always meet supported spouse's needs as measured by marital standard of living]

California Family Code§4330 does not, by requiring courts to consider the marital standard of living, set dollar boundaries on the amount of support but, again, simply furnishes a point of reference to be used in weighing all of the parties' circumstances. [Marriage of Smith, supra, 225 CalApp 3d at 484; see also Marriage of Khera & Sameer, supra, 206 CalApp 4th

at 1483 – "a general reference point'; Marriage of Nelson (2006) 139 CalApp 4th 1546, 1560, - “neither a floor nor a ceiling”

The California Family Code offers no guidelines for measuring the "marital standard of living," thus leaving the bench and bar to speculate on what the Legislature intended. Case law closes that loophole: 'We hold that the marital standard of living is intended by the Legislature to mean the general station in life (enjoyed by the parties during their marriage. The Legislature did not intend it to be a precise mathematical calculation. . ." [Marriage of Smith(1990) 225 CalApp 3d 469, 475 (emphasis added); see Marriage of Kerr(1999) 77 CalApp 4th 87, 94; Marriage of Nelson, supra, 139 CalApp 4th at 1560,]