What is a GAVRON WARNING and how does it affect my right to SPOUSAL SUPPORT?

Q. I was at our first court hearing last week requesting child and spousal support. My husband's attorney asked the judge to give me a "Gavron Warning". The judge said he would consider at a future hearing, but I don't understand what this meant. The judge did order my husband to pay child and spousal support. What do I do if this comes up again?

What Are Gavron Warnings?

Gavron warnings deal with the question of when a supported spouse may be expected to become partially or totally self-sufficient, so that they can no longer be expected to rely on a former spouse for economic support. At some point the entitlement to be supported usually ends.

Where the court intends that party to become self-supporting by a given date, it generally must first give that person advance warning. Marriage of Gavron (1988) 203 Cal.App.3d 705 is the case which first articulated this policy. This advance notice is now called the Gavron Warning. It does not impact child support.

This represents a trend in the law away from a rule which once entitled a spouse (typically women) to lifelong alimony to a right to receive spousal support for only so long as necessary to become self-supporting. It applies equally to men and women, and to domestic partners. There is no question that this trend has gained legislative acceptance, and in 2000 Family Code section 4330 was enacted. It provides in part:

"(b) When making an order for spousal support, the court may advise the recipient of support that he or she should make reasonable efforts to assist in providing for his or her support needs, taking into account the particular circumstances considered by the court pursuant to Section 4320, unless, in the case of a marriage of long duration as provided for in Section 4336, the court decides this warning is inadvisable."

Note that this statute states the court "may advise" the support recipient to make reasonable efforts to assist in supporting themselves. This means it is up to a judge to decide at any given stage in any given case when and whether or not to give the warning. One of the factors that the court must consider is the length of the marriage.

Gavron Warnings in Long Term Marriages

Family Code section 4336 defines a marriage of long duration as 10 years or more. There are cases that have decided that this 10 year rule is not inflexible, and that marriages of less than ten years may qualify for this protection where the facts warrant it (i.e., disability, domestic violence, the parties' respective ages).

The effect of the Gavron decision is to require that fair advance notice in fact be given before a court can properly terminate or reduce spousal support as of a specified future date. The idea is that a supported spouse should not be punished for failing to meet the court's unrevealed expectation that they would become self-sufficient - absent this required advance notice it is judicial error to abruptly terminate an alimony order because of a failure to make good faith efforts to become self-supporting.

However, that notice need not be express - although it usually is. For instance, your husband's attorney was competently (but aggressively) representing your husband by asking the court early on to give you an express warning. He or she will probably ask again at every future hearing until the judge finally does give you the Gavron admonition. That warning need not be in any magic formula: It merely needs to clearly tell the supported spouse that they are expected to become self-supporting. The classic language is contained in the FL-180 Judgment of Annulment, Legal Separation or Dissolution form and reads: "It is the goal of this state that each party will make reasonable good faith efforts to become self supporting as provided for in Family Code section 4320. The failure to make reasonable good faith efforts maybe one of the factors considered by the court as a basis for modifying or terminating spousal or partner support."

How About Gavron Admonitions in Short Marriages?

Except in short marriages of less than 10 years, most judges will not issue Gavron warnings early on because during the early divorce process it is not reasonable that suddenly a homemaker should become self-supporting. At the time a Judgment of Dissolution or Legal Separation is entered, however, and possibly except in cases of very lengthy marriages lasting 20 years or more (or where the parties are too old to be expected to retrain), most judges will give the Gavron Warning.

Additionally, Gavron language is often found in Marital Termination Agreements (also known as MSA's for 'marital settlement agreements'). Whether the language is included in the settlement agreements is a matter of negotiation between the parties. As a recipient you want to resist it. As a payor spouse, you want to insist upon it. The longer the marriage, the less reasonable it is to include such language. For instance, when I represent women over the age of 50 with marriages in excess of 10-15 years, I counsel my client not to permit it - however, the reality is that by the end of a case, except perhaps in very long marriages, judges are going to give the admonition. On the other hand, if I am representing the high earner spouse, I always argue for its inclusion. This is one of those subtle areas where having the right attorney for you can make a huge difference in your future security. However, as you may have noted above the language has become so standard now that it is included in the FL-180 Judgment form and be used for or against you even if you never read that piece of paper (one you don't sign).

In answer to your question what to do when this comes up again, urge the court that this is too soon and too early, and not reasonable given that you have devoted your married life to child-rearing and to helping your client develop the career that you both once believed would support the family until retirement and ultimately death.

This is just an overview of the Gavron admonition. Visit us here for more information.

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Author: T.W. Arnold III