FAQ: What factors will a judge weigh most heavily when assessing the Marital Standard of Living?

The marital standard of living (MSOL) is one of the many factors that are set out in the California Family Code that are to be considered by a divorce court in the determination of spousal support. Our FPS team weighs in on this tricky topic:



image of Michelle L. Stowell on attorney team page“The marital standard of living incorporates a number of factors – including savings during marriage. If, during marriage, the parties regularly saved money – whether it be in retirement accounts, savings accounts, or other investments – the court may consider the savings history of the parties during marriage when determining the actual marital standard of living. So even if the parties lived modestly while married, the court may still make a rather large spousal support order based on the fact that a significant amount of the parties’ income went into savings and/or investments rather than financing a lavish lifestyle.”



Neil M.E. Forester Family Law Attorney“MSOL can be tricky. In fact, in some cases, judges assign no weight to it at all in assessing a long-term support order. For instance, if one or both of the parties is retired or approaching retirement, the court may find that the MSOL does not shed any light on what spousal support should be – that the other factors to weigh are more relevant given the anticipated drop in earned income. Knowing who the trial judge is going to be may thus be more important than a thorough analysis of the MSOL.”



Keeley L. Nickelson, Family Law Attorney“The Marital Standard of Living usually stems from one major factor: INCOME. So how do courts determine the MSOL if one spouse takes a different job with a significantly lower salary? The answer depends on the reason. If the spouse who would be paying support quit a high-paying job out of spite and a desire NOT to pay support, the court can impute income to that party. If, though, the spouse took a different job in order to spend more time with their children, the court would take that into account in making a support order.”



The court has to consider Marital Standard of Living “MSOL” when determining long-term spousal support. I have often come across people who believe that because they did not work during the marriage, they have no obligation to work once the marriage is over. This is absolutely not true.  The court uses the MSOL to determine what would be needed to maintain a reasonable approximation of that standard after divorce, but it also has to take into consideration both parties’ ability to meet that standard on their own. Both parties have to do their best to support themselves, and if one falls short of meeting the MSOL despite best efforts, then the court can award spousal support to supplement income to as close to the reasonable MSOL as possible.  Spousal support is not intended to be a replacement for work, it is intended to assist a party to become self supporting regardless of the MSOL.



“When determining a couple’s marital standard of living, the court will look to the parties’ income earned during the marriage.  Surprising to most people, this income analysis may include funds received by a party separate and apart from their employment income.  One potential source of income is money received by way of gift or inheritance during the marriage.  For example, wife regularly receives $10,000 per month in trust distribution income throughout the marriage which is added to the community coffers and used for the family living expenses.  The court could consider this additional $10,000 per month in the determination of the marital standard of living since those funds contributed to the couple’s lifestyle.”



image of Kristen L. Sellers of team attorney page“Courts generally look at the respective incomes and expenses of the parties when determining MSOL. This makes sense given that most people spend what they earn, but what if the parties are living well beyond their means? Expenses such as lavish vacations, frequent dining out, and expensive cars and houses may establish the extravagant lifestyle the parties were accustomed to, but champagne taste on a beer budget won’t help much when trying to establish a higher spousal support award. When parties have been living well beyond their means, the court will likely rely heavily on the parties’ actual income when determining MSOL.”


ABOUT THE FIRM: FORESTER PURCELL STOWELL PC is a Northern California law firm focused exclusively on specialized counsel for complex divorce and family law issues. Its shareholders are Certified Family Law Specialists, recognized by the State Bar of California’s Board of Legal Specialization. The firm regularly represents business owners, professionals, and other high net worth individuals (or their spouses) in divorce, custody disputes, premarital agreements, and related actions. Attorneys can be reached at info@foresterpurcell.com or 916 293 4000. This information is general in nature and should not be construed as legal advice.
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