Can You Get in Trouble For Failing to Pay Spousal Support in California?

Spousal support, also known as alimony, could be ordered by a judge in a California divorce court to be paid by one spouse to the other. 

It can be a messy process, with a bevy of factors from the marriage weighing in on how much is paid. But if a spouse chooses to stop payments on their own, it could get even uglier financially.

Alimony payments are typically made through regular installments for a certain amount of time decided by the court. If payments stop before the court-mandated time, the paying spouse could face civil or criminal charges for contempt. 

Here is what to know on a more detailed definition of spousal support in California and the consequences for non-payment. 

What is Alimony?

Alimony is a fixed amount of money that one spouse pays the other for the receiver of those funds to be able to financially get their life back on track. 

Out of the more than 750,000 divorces each year in the United States, up to 15 percent result in spousal support. In the 1980s, most cases resulted in women receiving alimony, but following Orr v. Orr, the Supreme Court ruled that alimony should be gender-neutral. 

Because of that, high-profile divorce cases have since then ordered celebrity women to pay millions of dollars to their exes, such as Kelly Clarkson, who was recently ordered to pay more than $100,000 in spousal support each month until January 2024.

When spousal support like this is ordered by the court, it is binding, which means if the payment is not made in California, severe consequences will result. 

How is the Amount of Spousal Support in California Determined?

When determining the amount of alimony (or if any) that should be paid after a divorce, the California court will consider the couple’s financial history, debts, and assets. For example, a spouse may be justified in seeking spousal support if he or she has not worked outside of being a caregiver at home or has worked part-time jobs to be able to raise children at the same time.

Court-ordered alimony can be paid for a set amount of time or indefinitely. Usually, for any marriage that was under 10 years, alimony is set to be paid for about half the length of the marriage. If the marriage was over 10 years, the judge will determine the duration of the financial obligations.

Sometimes, divorced couples are able to mutually agree on the amount of alimony to be paid, but if there is a dispute, the court will factor in how to calculate alimony by considering:

  • Any tax matters or issues
  • Property assets and debts
  • Length of the marriage
  • Whether or not the spouse’s career was affected because of childcare duties, a layoff, or unemployment
  • The health and ages of each spouse
  • Whether or not domestic violence was involved in the marriage
  • If a spouse helped the other spouse acquire an educational degree or job license
  • The standard of living and needs of each spouse

What are the Consequences of Not Paying Alimony in California?

The judge on the case may first call the negligent spouse into the courtroom to explain why payments have stopped. Regardless of what the judge decides, California law mandates an APR penalty of 10 percent to be added to any overdue payments.

In addition to possible jail time, consequences for failing to pay alimony may involve the court forcing payment by:

An Ordered Wage Garnishment

A garnishment order made by a judge will tell the employer of the nonpaying spouse to withhold part of their pay, which will go toward the alimony debt. The funds will be pulled from each paycheck and go directly to the ex-spouse.

An Ordered Levy on Bank Accounts

For failure to pay alimony, the court can order a levy on bank accounts, which allows the state of California to legally remove money from the ex-spouse’s bank account and actually freeze the account until the nonpayment situation is further evaluated. The bank will then send the money to the state, and the state will disburse the debt to the other spouse.

An Ordered Seizure of Tax Refunds

Tax refund checks may be ordered to go toward missing alimony payments. The California court system can notify the state’s Treasury Department if someone is behind on alimony payments, which will then give the IRS a red flag that will send any expected tax refund to the other spouse. This also applies to stimulus payments or any other tax-related refunds. 

An Ordered Lien on Property

Any property or asset with value that the nonpaying ex-spouse owns may either be seized or a lien may be put on it to cover the cost of the alimony.

How to Stop or Change the Terms of Alimony

A spouse paying alimony in California cannot stop paying the other spouse on their terms. They must go through the court system to legally discontinue or change the terms of the spousal support.

Unless the original divorce agreement specifies that no modifications are to be made at any time, there are a few ways alimony can be stopped or changed:

  • Both spouses agree to change the amount or length of time of the alimony, resulting in a written agreement that outlines detailed terms. This is often possible if there have not been any failed child support payments.
  • If the spouses cannot agree, the court becomes involved, which means a motion needs to be filed to prove any changes in the original circumstances. 
  • To completely terminate the alimony payments, proof of a major change in circumstances will also need to be shown to the court. Alimony will be ended by default if there is a death of either spouse.

If a spouse cannot afford to pay alimony to the other spouse altogether due to significant changes in the paying spouse’s circumstances, an experienced divorce attorney in California can ask the court to reevaluate the alimony payments and why you need to lower them. 

Another momentous change that justifies a modification in the amount of alimony payments could be if the ex-spouse moves in with someone else. This signifies an adjustment in living expenses, with the new “roommate” now sharing rent/mortgage, groceries, and other bills.

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