It’s easy to confuse alimony and child support, but there are notable differences between the two. When a relationship breaks down, alimony is concerned with spousal or partner support, whereas child support is for any offspring involved in a separation. In some circles, alimony is seen as an out-of-date term and now more commonly referred to as spousal or partner support.
At the highest level, alimony is designed to maintain the spouse’s standard of living - and child support has the same goal. That said, there are some subtle but essential differences worth keeping in mind regarding how an agreement is reached, how long it lasts, how the payments can be spent, and what other non-financial supports are offered.
There are typically many difficult issues to resolve when a marriage or relationship ends. This is especially true when long-term relationships, children, expensive assets, disputed ownership, or large debts are involved.
If you’re in the process of getting divorced or separated and would like to know exactly where you stand legally, read on for some simple, straightforward, and balanced takes on alimony and child support.
If you and your partner are separating, have no children, and have broadly similar salaries, assets, and debts, there may be no alimony payable either way. And even where children are involved, no fixed form of child support may be necessary - you could share childcare 50/50, with a week on/week off agreement, for example.
However, in reality, most cases are a lot more complex and involved. That’s true when one partner is the primary earner, and the other has put their prospects on hold to raise children or support their spouse’s ambitions.
At the heart of alimony and child support is the principle that all parties should be able to live in the manner to which they’re accustomed. The law doesn’t want to see one partner live in a mansion and another in a tiny, cramped apartment - and neither does it want to see a child or children living between those two extremes.
The confusion between alimony and child support arises because both payments exist due to a divorce or legal separation. Also, until they’re directly affected, the majority of people simply aren’t that bothered about the distinction.
That all changes when two partners are going through a separation. Then the differences between alimony and child support very quickly become apparent because both have a significant impact on the quality of life for each spouse and any children involved.
If you can’t negotiate a settlement with your partner, you’ll probably have to go to court. No two separations are the same, so the presiding judge decides on support payments based on each case. Rather than using a set formula to come up with a figure, the judge considers many factors and then uses their legal experience to decide on the support orders.
Perhaps the most significant difference between alimony and child support is that there are no conditions about how any payments can be spent with alimony. With child support, the law stipulates that all these funds must be spent on the child’s care, covering health, education, food, clothing, and other relevant needs.
When calculating the amount and length of alimony, California judges work under California Family Code Section 4320. Under this law, they must take into consideration important factors like the length of marriage or partnership, what’s needed by both sides to maintain a certain standard of living, ability to pay, childcare arrangements, assets and debts, the role of one partner in supporting the other’s career, age and health of both parties, whether there was domestic violence, and more.
For example, a spouse who raises a couple’s four children to adulthood, who supports her spouse’s career, and actively contributes to their family company’s success over 30 years will be treated very differently to a spouse who wants a divorce three months after a whirlwind romance.
California has a range of guidelines on child support, but if the parents cannot agree, it’s up to a judge to decide. Decisions on child support are based on several statutes, including California Family Code Section 4053.
Judges must consider factors like each parent’s income and tax status, the number of children and their ages, the time they spend with each parent, children from other relationships, health insurance costs, educational needs, and more. Payments traditionally end when a child reaches 18. However, that period can be extended up to a year in certain circumstances. As already mentioned, child support payments must be spent on caring for a child’s needs.
Spousal support orders issued before December 31, 2018, are both taxable (receiving partner) and deductible (paying partner). After that date, under revised federal laws, spousal support is nontaxable for recipients and no longer deductible by the payer. California still treats alimony as taxable income for the recipient and as deductible for the payer at a state level.
Child support payments benefit the child and not the person who receives it, so for that reason, such payments are not taxable. The parent making the payment isn’t entitled to claim it as a deductible expense.
Negotiating your way through a separation is a minefield given the many complex variables, conditions, regulations, laws, and unknowns. Typically, it’s a highly exhausting and traumatic time, with emotions running high on both sides.
That’s why it’s so essential to employ a professional attorney - not just to help you reach the best possible settlement but also to ensure you don’t say or do anything that could prejudice your case. Being guided and advised by an experienced family lawyer is advantageous in any divorce or separation case if you want to reach a fair and reasonable legal outcome.
While the difference between alimony (spouse/partner) and child support is easy to explain, the actual process of coming to a mutual agreement on these payments is a far more complicated and time-consuming affair. To ensure the fairest, swiftest, and most secure arrangement, most people recognize that they need an experienced family lawyer’s expert services.