How Long Do You Have to Become Self-Supporting after Divorce?


Married spouses can have many different arrangements when it comes to roles in the household. In many marriages, both spouses work and contribute to the finances of the family. In other situations, one spouse might be the primary earner while the other spouse does not work to care for their children and home. Some primary earners simply bring in enough income that the other spouse does not have to work.

No matter what the reason might be, if one spouse does not work and the other is the main financial support for the couple, divorce can be terrifying for the non-working spouse. Many people might not have worked in quite some time or actively pursued a career in order to provide practical support for the household. In a divorce, they will lose access to their ex-spouse’s income, and they might not have the education, experience, or training to get a job that sufficiently covers their needs and expenses.

This is a common example of when the issue of spousal support would be raised during divorce proceedings.

Spousal Support Determinations

Spousal support is also known as alimony or maintenance, and it is often one of the most contested issues in a divorce case. After all, no one wants to keep paying their ex-spouse following the end of the marriage. However, the law recognizes that many people make professional sacrifices for the good of the household, and these should not be discounted. Practical support and career sacrifices are valuable, and spouses should not suffer or struggle following a divorce because they went this route.

For the above reasons, the law entitles spouses to seek spousal support if they are unable to support themselves following a divorce. Spousal support involves payments from one former spouse (who has the ability to pay) to the other (who needs support). However, spousal support is not intended to last indefinitely. Instead, the recipient should make the effort to become self-supporting, which eliminates the need for further spousal support.

Becoming Self-Supporting

Following a divorce, if one spouse is not working, they might feel relatively comfortable with their share of the community property distribution and the spousal support they are receiving. This might be plenty to live on, which might make them less likely to take steps to gain education, training, and more to become self-supporting. However, the law in California imposes the duty on most support recipients to become self-supporting in a timely manner.

Specifically, most spousal support awards come with a “Gavron Warning” from the court. This stems from the 1988 case, Marriage of Gavron, and orders the support recipient to do everything they can reasonably do to become self-supporting within a reasonable amount of time. This warning and expectation also became part of California’s family laws.

Generally speaking, spousal support should not last longer than half of the length of the marriage. If you were married for six years, you should expect to receive spousal support for a maximum of three years. However, marriages of ten years or longer are considered to be marriages of long duration, and the court does not place a definite end-date on spousal support. However, the court can set the expectation that you become self-supporting by a certain date.

Becoming self-supporting might sound easier than it really is, especially when you have not worked in a long time. It is important to take a realistic look at your employment prospects and goals. Did you have a targeted career path before you left the workforce? Do you want to continue on that path or, perhaps, start an entirely new career? These are important questions to consider.

Some other questions you need to explore in a timely manner can include:

  • Do you have an education you want to finish?
  • Do you want to get an advanced degree?
  • Do you need retraining or relicensing for your previous career?
  • Do you want to start your own business or work for another company?
  • What jobs are available based on your current situation, and would they support your life?
  • Do you need a couple of years back at work to rise in the ranks as you want to do?

These are all questions you should ask yourself and possibly, a career coach. There are many resources available for people in this situation, and many people are able to become fully self-sufficient following a divorce.

What Happens if You Do Not Become Self-Supporting?

If you were issued a Gavron Warning when the court awarded you spousal support, you should take your duty to become self-supporting seriously. While the last thing you might want to do following an emotional divorce is get right to work on your career, you cannot rely on spousal support to cover your life expenses.

If enough time passes and your ex-spouse does not believe you have taken the necessary steps to be self-sufficient, they can request that the court modify or terminate your spousal support. The court is likely to do this if a reasonable amount of time has passed since you received notice that you had the duty to become self-sufficient. This means your support can be significantly reduced or cut off completely, leaving you with an emergency situation to have to support yourself. It is preferable to take steps to become self-supporting on your own terms than to have your support be terminated beyond your control.

What if You are Unable to Work?

One major exception to the duty to become self-supporting is when you would not have the ability to work even if you took all possible steps. This might apply if:

  • You were already nearing or at retirement age when you got divorced
  • You have a mental or physical disability that prevents you from working
  • You were out of the workforce for so long that it is unreasonable that you could find work to support yourself
  • Your standard of living was so high in the marriage that it is unlikely you could come close to supporting a similar standard of living

You should always carefully review your situation before you assume that you are not employable.