Does it Matter if Your Spouse Could be Earning More?


Marriage requires compromise, and sometimes one spouse only engages in part-time work while raising children or homemaking. Your spouse might even accept a lower-paying job to obtain scheduling flexibility, serve the community, or start a business. California’s progressive spousal support system does not allow ex-spouses to manipulate alimony awards by refusing to obtain gainful employment. However, family courts consider more than a spouse’s maximum potential income when calculating support obligations. The parties’ health, skills, employment history, education, and opportunities may all impact spousal maintenance awards. A California domestic relations attorney may help you understand how the State determines and imputes income to spouses during dissolution proceedings.

Overview of Spousal Support Awards in California

California Family Code § 4320 governs spousal support calculations and expressly states that alimony exists to help the supported party become self-sufficient. As such, courts consider each spouse’s actual income and earning potential during support proceedings. The court must look at the following circumstances relative to spousal income:

  • Whether each party’s individual earning capacity can support the marital standards of living
  • The supported party’s marketable skills and the current relative job market
  • Any time, expenditures, or additional education needed to develop base skills further and obtain gainful employment
  • The extent to which periods of unemployment due to domestic responsibilities, i.e., child-rearing or household duties, effect the supported party’s future earning capacity
  • The paying party’s earning capacity and actual income
  • The ability of the supported party to engage in employment and maximize earning capacity while undertaking child-rearing responsibilities

The court strives to give supported parties a financial cushion while they reestablish themselves in the workforce. If the supported party could easily obtain gainful employment sufficient to maintain his/her lifestyle, courts may only order short-term or reduced support. Courts may also order rehabilitative support (generally a lump sum payment) if one spouse contributed to the other’s career and earning potential. This kind of spousal support award often occurs when one spouse worked to put the other through an advanced degree program or helped his/her spouse start a business. Whether one spouse sacrificed career advancement opportunities to benefit the family unit may weigh against imputed income calculations.

Imputing Income to Spouses During Alimony Proceedings 

Circumstances often arise where one party has a high earning potential, but his/her actual income does not reflect this. Courts cannot force parties to find new employment that maximizes their income potential, but they may impute (assign) additional income to one or both spouses during support calculations. Imputed income is fictitious. It represents the gap between one party’s current income and their assessed potential income/earning capacity. Assigning additional income to paying spouses may increase receiving spouses’ monthly support awards. Likewise, imputing income to supported spouses could decrease receiving spouses’ financial entitlements. Consider the following examples:

Imputing Income to a Paying Spouse

A husband left his job as an engineer before separating from his wife. Instead, he began teaching courses at the local college part-time and refused to look for new engineering work. His actual income is $40,000 per year, but his previous income was $150,000 per year. The court may calculate spousal support by imputing an additional $110,000 per year in income to the husband. This imputation naturally increases the amount of support available to the receiving spouse.

Imputing Income to a Receiving Spouse

A husband and wife met in medical school and began practicing medicine thereafter. The wife stopped working to raise the couple’s now-adult children, and she currently works part-time in telehealth. The wife’s annual income amounts to $25,000, but she could easily obtain a job for $75,000 and eventually earn up to $200,000 per year. The court will likely impute $50,000 in additional income to her and schedule support payments to end after she reestablishes herself in the medical field.

Courts do not generally impute income to spouses with full-time jobs in their chosen career fields. Judges seldom penalize parties for accepting lower-income jobs for viable reasons such as better benefits, healthier work environments, or community service. For example, they will not generally financially punish a professor for teaching full-time instead of maximizing her earning potential in the private sector. Consider discussing the unique facts of your case with a local family support lawyer.

Demanding a Vocational Training Assessment to Impute Income

Spouses frequently debate the value of each other’s earning capacities, which often leads to lengthy divorce and alimony litigation. California addresses these common conflicts by permitting one or both spouses to demand a certified vocational examination. Under Cal. Fam. Code § 4331, a qualified vocational counselor, i.e., a master’s degree plus experience, will calculate a party’s reasonable earning capacity by reviewing the examinee’s: 

  • Age and health as related to his/her skills and profession
  • Education, training, and certifications
  • Employment history
  • Financially marketable skills
  • Actual job market and reasonably available opportunities
  • Overall ability to obtain employment sufficient to maintain his/her standard of living

Vocational experts have access to local and national income and salary guidelines based on experience and profession. They often use these guidelines to calculate the examinee’s earning capacity for spousal support orders in combination with specific factors related to age, location, and current job markets. Experts might also provide a self-support assessment that provides timelines for retraining and the financial benefits of reeducation. Courts often accept these examinations’ accuracy during spousal support proceedings, but one spouse may challenge the facts presented during the assessment. 

California Family Lawyers for Spousal Support Calculations  

Family judges consider numerous factors when determining appropriate alimony awards, including each party’s earning capacity and ability to pay. Because alimony in California exists to help the supported spouse gain financial independence, the receiving spouse’s earning capacity does matter during marital dissolution proceedings. Spouses may request the court order a vocational assessment to calculate the reasonable value of their spouse’s skills in the local marketplace. This examination could result in imputed income sufficient to increase, reduce, or limit the period of your spousal support award. Consider discussing your support concerns with a California alimony attorney today.