The answer to this question is fairly simple, but the consequences are significant and far-reaching for an individual paying or receiving spousal support. For starters, though the term “alimony” has reached a certain level of notoriety in popular culture, it is not a term that the Family Code or the courts use with any regularity. Money paid by one soon-to-be-ex to another soon-to-be-ex is simply called “spousal support” or “maintenance.” Spousal support does come in two forms, though, and those two forms of support serve very different purposes. The first form of spousal support is “temporary spousal support.” The fancy Latin term is “pendent lite” support. This is the kind of spousal support that will generally be ordered by the court very early in a divorce case, usually soon after the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage has been filed. Temporary spousal support can only be ordered after one of the spouses actually files a motion requesting it, though – the court cannot simply order it because someone checked the right box on the Petition for Dissolution form.
Assuming that a proper motion for temporary support is filed, the court will evaluate the respective incomes of the spouses, including tax-related factors like mortgage interest deductions, property tax deductions, health insurance payments, or a handful of other specific financial considerations, and will plug all of those numbers into a computer program, which will then spit out the proper support amount. The purpose of temporary spousal support is to make sure that both parties have relatively equal access to income during the divorce action so that neither party has a financial advantage over the other while the case works its way through the system. Temporary support will generally go away when a Judgment is entered in the case (either by trial or by agreement).
This does not mean, though, that spousal support goes away after Judgment. But it does change, becoming “post-Judgment” support – often called “permanent” support. Post-Judgment support is rarely truly permanent. The purpose of post-Judgment support is to enable both parties to maintain the “marital standard of living” after divorce. The marital standard of living is a fact sensitive determination, but usually involves looking at the financial health of the marriage over a much longer term than simply evaluating present incomes (as in temporary support). The court is required to evaluate a laundry list of factors that will impact the determination of post-Judgment support, and cannot simply plug numbers into a computer program. As a result, post-Judgment support is often less than temporary support – mostly because the court considers a much wider array of factors than in a temporary support situation. Post-Judgment support in a marriage of less than 10 years in duration will usually be paid for a period of one-half the duration of the marriage. In marriages of over 10 years (a presumptively “long term” marriage), support will not likely be automatically terminated on a particular date – it will continue until the spouse receiving the support is self-sufficient or the court determines that the spouse receiving it has had plenty of time to become self-sufficient. Both spouses have an obligation to become self-supporting under California law, even if only one spouse worked during the marriage.