Divorcing couples in California often seek legal representation to determine how much monthly alimony—also known as spousal support—payments should be. A bill currently going through the California court system could change the law concerning alimony, making it impossible for individuals who sexually abuse their spouses to collect alimony from their victims.
Four years ago, Crystal Harris, 39, was sexually assaulted by then-husband Shawn Harris while their two young boys were upstairs. They are now divorced and Shawn was sentenced to six years in prison because of his actions. However, Crystal Harris has been ordered to pay spousal support under California law.
The wording of the current California Family Code states that “criminal conviction of an abusive spouse shall be considered in making a reduction or elimination of a spousal support award.” This gives the family court judge the discretion to decide whether spousal support should be awarded, and some judges choose to do so despite the nature of such crimes.
Crystal Harris said the judge who presided over her divorce told her the only reason she had to pay spousal support was because she has a substantially higher income than her former husband. While the judge reduced the monthly support value from $3,000 to $1,000 and stipulated that Shawn Harris will not receive any support until he is released from jail, Crystal and many others disagree with this decision. Crystal compares this to making a rape victim pay twice—once during the assault itself, and then every month following.
The new bill has passed one committee and moved on for approval by the state assembly. Advocates for victims are pleased with this progress, but family law groups argue that “The family law courts are not criminal courts, and the legislature should not be creating that prospect. The criminal courts should remain in charge of prosecuting and punishing.” Currently the only type of marital abuse crime that waives the payment of alimony is if the victim had suffered from an attempted murder.
Changing spousal support laws in California
In 1995, Barbara Bentley had to pay alimony to her former spouse after he tried to kill her. She took her case to the courts and won. The law now favors the victim and cannot make him or her pay any spousal support to their would-be murderer.
Crystal Harris’ case would change this law to provide additional protection for victims of criminal acts. She has Bentley’s support and the support of a lawmaker, Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, who introduced the bill to keep any victim of spousal sexual crimes from having to pay alimony.
While this bill may not become law for quite some time, an Orange County divorce lawyer may be able to help if you find yourself in a similar situation. A qualified lawyer can help you navigate divorce proceedings and present a persuasive argument to a family court judge.