Twenty-five years ago, a man named Steve Clark got married. Now, he is divorced and says the monthly alimony payments he is required to make to his ex-wife each month have him rethinking the prospect of getting married altogether. In fact, Clark says that if he had known he would be on the hook to support his ex forever, he wouldn’t have risked getting married in the first place. This article takes a look at how one divorced man is fighting to cut one of the expensive ties between exes in California.

Challenging the “Lifetime Obligation” to support an ex

First things first, let’s take a look at what current law has to say on the matter. In California, “when a couple legally separates or divorces, the court may order one spouse or domestic partner to pay the other a certain amount of support money each month.” These payments are known as “spousal support” in the case of divorce and “partner support” in a domestic partnership dissolution, but the most common and recognizable name for all of the above is alimony.

The purpose of alimony is to limit any economic disadvantage caused by divorce by requiring the higher earning spouse to make payments to the lower earning spouse so that they have a continuing income. Permanent spousal support can only end by court order, the death of one of the spouses, or if the lower earning spouse remarries.

Types of alimony

Temporary Alimony Support ordered when the parties are separated prior to divorce.
Rehabilitative Alimony Support given to a lesser-earning spouse for a period of time necessary to acquire work outside the home and become self-sufficient.
Permanent Alimony Support paid to the lesser-earning spouse until the death of the payor, the death of the recipient, or the remarriage of the recipient.
Reimbursement Alimony Support given as a reimbursement for expenses incurred by a spouse during the marriage (such as educational expenses).

Clark thinks permanent alimony is an “outdated” injustice and tantamount to “legal extortion.” California law allows for lifetime alimony in divorce cases that involve long-term marriages. Simply put, if you and your spouse were married for 10 or more years, it is possible that one party will have to pay spousal support for the rest of his or her life. Needless to say, this isn’t the “’til death do us part” scenario these higher wage earners had in mind when they got married.

Rather than complain, Clark has taken action to try and get the spousal support laws in California changed. His first attempt to get alimony reform legislation on the ballot a few years ago came up short. Now, he’s at it again, but it won’t be easy. Over the next few months, Clark and his fellow members of California Alimony Reform have to get 623,000 signatures siding with his latest proposal to set limits on California alimony.

What would this potential change to spousal support do?

According to Clark, the duration of alimony payments in California needs a set limit. If a couple was in a long-term marriage, support payments are required and terminated based on a judge’s discretion. Depending on the judge and the case, therefore, one ex could be paying to support the other until one of them dies or the ex remarries.

If Clark’s proposed spousal support reform passes, it would require that alimony payments be paid only for as long as five years. This proposal is based on the argument that an able-bodied adult should be able to find work and get back on his or her own two feet to support their lifestyle within that five-year span. The individual could get rooted in their new life post-divorce, set a new lifestyle they can afford, and work to afford it independently.

Will changes to the alimony law actually happen?

As of September, Clark and those in support of his mission for California alimony reform had collected about 2,000 signatures. That is far from the 623,000 needed to get the family law measure on the ballot. Nonetheless, alimony reform is becoming a hot topic within the family law field. As societal norms change, laws and legal decisions made by judges can evolve, too.

Women are more often highly-educated today in comparison to decades prior. It has become less common for there to be a stay-at-home parent in a family. When both spouses have college degrees and stable careers, the requirement for long-term alimony after divorce makes less sense. Even though one of the parties might earn less, he or she still has a career and options to achieve career goals in order to afford a healthy lifestyle independently.

The future of California alimony reform

Despite the growing focus on the fairness of permanent alimony, there are almost certainly cases when it is appropriate. For example, if the lower earning spouse is sick, disabled, or was abused during the marriage, it seems fair to ask the higher earning spouse to continue to provide support. While this year’s efforts to get alimony reform on the ballot may come up short once again, Clark and the 200 members of his organization are not giving up. They continue to try and rally support in the legislature as well as undertaking a grassroots campaign to grow public support for the cause.