California Family Code Section 4320 - Interpretation

Family Code section 4320 identifies numerous circumstances the trial court must consider in ordering spousal support. Among these are the "age and health of the parties" (Fam. Code, 4320, subd. (h)), the "balance of the hardships to each party" (Fam. Code, 4320, subd. (k)), and the "goal that the supported party shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time" (Fam. Code, 4320, subd. (l)). The Court held: "We review the spousal support award for abuse of discretion, but with the understanding that a sustainable exercise of discretion requires that the trial court have considered and applied all relevant factors under Family Code section 4320." (In re Marriage of McTiernan & Dubrow (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 1090, 1106.) In In re Marriage of Schulze (1997) 60 Cal.App.4th 519, the court reversed a permanent spousal support award where there was no indication the award was arrived at independently. The Schulze court noted that permanent support reflects a complex variety of factors established by statute and committed to the trial court's discretion, in contrast to temporary support which is aimed at maintaining the status quo pending trial. (Id. at p. 527.) "If the trial judge begins with the proposed temporary figure and then makes adjustments (or merely uses some of the section 4320 factors to justify a figure based on the temporary order), the ultimate order is not really the product of a truly independent exercise of judicial discretion. . . . . Section 4320 clearly contemplates a ground-up examination of the need for and appropriate level of permanent spousal support, rather than beginning with a figure pegged to a proposed temporary support order." (Id. at pp. 526-527.) In In re Marriage of Terry (2000) 80 Cal.App.4th 921, the court explained the import of these provisions for requests to modify existing spousal support orders: "The trial court has broad discretion to decide whether to modify a spousal support order based on a material change of circumstances. In exercising this discretion, the court considers the same criteria set forth in Family Code section 4320 as it considered when making the initial order and any subsequent modification order. These factors include the ability of the supporting party to pay; the needs of each party based on the standard of living established during the marriage; the obligations and assets of each party; and the balance of hardships to each party. " (Terry, at p. 928.) Family Code Section 4320 provides in pertinent part: "In ordering spousal support . . ., the court shall consider all of the following circumstances: (a) The extent to which the earning capacity of each party is sufficient to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage, taking into account all of the following: (1) 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; and the possible need for retraining or education to acquire other, more marketable skills or employment. (2) The extent to which the supported party's present or future earning capacity is impaired by periods of unemployment that were incurred during the marriage to permit the supported party to devote time to domestic duties. (b) The extent to which the supported party contributed to the attainment of an education, training, a career position, or a license by the supporting party. (c) The ability of the supporting party to pay spousal support, taking into account the supporting party's earning capacity, earned and unearned income, assets, and standard of living. (d) The needs of each party based on the standard of living established during the marriage. (e) The obligations and assets, including the separate property, of each party. (f) The duration of the marriage. (g) The ability of the supported party to engage in gainful employment without unduly interfering with the interests of dependent children in the custody of the party. (h) The age and health of the parties. (i) Documented evidence of any history of domestic violence . . . between the parties . . . . (j) The immediate and specific tax consequences to each party. (k) The balance of the hardships to each party. (l) The goal that the supported party shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time. . . . (m) The criminal conviction of an abusive spouse and the elimination of the award in accordance with Section 4325. (n) Any other factors the court determines are just and equitable." "As well, section 4322 provides that in original or modification proceedings, 'where there are no children, and a party has or acquires a separate estate, including income from employment, sufficient for the party's proper support, no support shall be ordered or continued against the other party.' (Italics added.) Denial of continued support is thus mandatory if the sufficiency threshold is met, irrespective of circumstances the court would otherwise consider under section 4320." (Terry, supra, 80 Cal.App.4th at p. 928.)