Relative Income and Spousal Support

What is meant by the term relative income and how does that factor into spousal support and alimony payments?

Whether you are dealing with a divorce for the first time or facing a modification years after a judgment, you should understand how courts determine the amount of spousal support or alimony that the other spouse is obligated to pay.  In California, for instance, spousal support orders are based on a number of factors set forth in California Family Code Section 4320. Basically, the Court considers the marriage’s standard of living, the parties’ relative income, and need for support.  Unlike with child support, a change in circumstances alone is not sufficient to later request modification of an order.  The spouse seeking modification must show either that their reasonable needs were never met by the initial order or that their needs have increased because they are no longer able to support themselves.  This means that one has to show that the amount of spousal support one was receiving was not enough at the beginning or that it is no longer enough now that one’s needs have increased.

So what the heck is relative income anyway? Let’s explain it like this:

Comparing two spouses, who earns more or who has a better-paid job? Is that the spouse that earns more? Or is that the spouse who works less? Let’s be scientific about it, or at least mathematical. In first place comes the level of income as a measure how well paid the job is. This is called absolute income. If Bob monthly earns $2600 and Sue earns $3000, it is obvious that Sue earns more and has a better paid job. Sue’s absolute income is higher than Bob’s. But if Bob works 40 hours per week and Sue is working 50 hours per week, it appears that Bob is earning more per hour. Bob is earning $16.50 while Jane is earning $15. This means that Bob’s Relative income is higher than Sue’s.

So, it’s that relative income that is used to assess quality of life, and thus spousal support. In states like New Mexico, for instance, the rule of thumb is no spousal support unless one spouse makes at least 67 percent more than the other. (This is the “30-50” rule: 30% of the higher income compared to 50% of the lower income.)

It’s not just salary that makes up relative income. There can be other factors. Often there are complex issues in determining a spouse’s correct income for the purposes of calculating support.  A spouse may be working less diligently or not working at all to deflate or decrease their income, in order to try and escape spousal support payments. In other cases, a spouse may be receiving job benefits such as a company car which should be treated as income, or may be operating their own business and running personal expenses through the business to decrease apparent income.

Spousal support is based on the premise that both spouses have an absolute obligation to support each other during their marriage and spousal support is the extension of that obligation after separation or divorce. States like Nevada have relatively vague statutes regarding spousal support and simply list factors that the judge should consider in determining the amount. These factors include but are not limited to: length of marriage, health of the parties, age of parties, relative income, and future financial prospects. Spousal support is a challenging aspect of family law. Particularly in cases where there are extenuating circumstances, you have the right to a qualified attorney to allow your voice to be heard by the court. This website is a great resource for you to help find a legal expert in this area, in your state.

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