What Does the Term "Marital Standard of Living (MSL)" Mean?

Q. What is meant by the words "marital standard of living" in dissolution actions?

In California lawyers in high earner dissolution cases often speak of Marital Standard of Living (MSOL or MSL). This is often the case for our clients in Palm Springs, Indian Wells, and Palm Desert. It is a very important element to determining spousal support/alimony obligations and entitlements. It works to place both a floor and a ceiling on the range of potential alimony awards.

When a court orders permanent spousal support in favor of an unemployed, home-making, or lower earner spouse or domestic partner it must base its decision in part upon the standard of living achieved during the marriage or partnership. This legislative admonition is referenced in California Family Code section 4330 and section 4320. The MSL is not the final factor, but it is the starting point. It references the general station in life the parties enjoyed during their marriage, along with all surrounding circumstances including vacations and other quality of life indicators. The court must also consider all the other factors set forth in Family Code section 4320 as well. These are discussed in my various websites, and you might want to try our search engine at the upper right because it includes all my writings on any subject I have written about and you can peruse my other articles easily.

The MSOL is not a mathematical formula, but must be determined for each couple. It can be determined based upon the parties' average income over time - and also from what they spent. But it can include any factor specific to any couple's living history.

Courts have broad discretion to award spousal support in greater or lesser sums than what the supported spouse requires to maintain the marital standard of living - which is why it is really important to hire a competent matrimonial lawyer. Endless variations are possible, but only if your attorney really understands how to describe them, and also understands how to utilize the other 4320 factors and present them to the court - sometimes with expert testimony or evidence. Frankly this is not likely to happen without an attorney who exclusively practices family law and has been at it for a substantial while.

A spouse or domestic partner's high income will be considered in terms of their ability to pay support, but the need of the supported spouse will also be evaluated. Issues arise when people live beyond their means - for instance, where a high earner is able to live a higher standard of living than the marital standard of living.

It is often the case with older couples that the family's standard of living was low when compared to the income stream that passed through during the marriage - perhaps the parties did not spend, but saved.

In such cases the court may set spousal support at an amount higher than the parties' actual standard of living. If the parties saved and invested and developed assets during the marriage, but spent little on living expenses, the supported spouse may be entitled to continue that savings by being supplemented with alimony.

T.W. Arnold, III, C.F.L.S.