Welcome to FreeDivorce.com.
Christina: This is Christina.
Ed: This is Ed. Today, we are going to talk about, not the amount of spousal support, but the duration of spousal support. Sometimes, the duration of spousal support is more important than the amount.
Christina: Ed, does the length of the marriage play a major role in determining the duration of spousal support?
Ed: Yes. We have two types of marriages when it comes to the duration of long-term spousal support: 1) Short-term marriages, which are marriages that lasted less than ten years; and 2) Long-term marriages, which are marriages that lasted over ten years. The duration of spousal support is very much related to the duration of the marriage. If you look at Family Code 4320, which is the statute that sets forth the factors the court looks at when making decisions about spousal support, subsection (l) of that statute states that when the court makes a decision about spousal support, the court shall consider the goal that the supported party shall be self-supporting within a reasonable period of time.
Christina: What is a reasonable period of time?
Ed: A reasonable period of time for short-term marriages is generally considered to be one-half the length of the marriage. In other words, if you were married for less than ten years, the expectation is that the spouse receiving spousal support should be able to become self-supporting in a period of time equal to one-half the length of the marriage. For example, if you were married for six years, spousal support would typically be paid for 3 years. This “half the length of the marriage” rule does not apply to long-term marriages that last for ten years or longer.
Christina: If half the length of the marriage rule does not apply to long-term marriages, what is the duration of spousal support for a marriage that lasted more than ten years? Do you have to pay spousal support forever?
Ed: A lot of people have the mistaken belief that if they were married for ten years or more, they can collect spousal support “for life”. To illustrate why this concept is inaccurate, assume a couple is the same age and has been married for 40 years. So, we are dealing with a very long-term marriage. Let’s assume the Husband earns $200,000 per year and the Wife earns only $75,000 per year. Let’s further assume that when the parties file for divorce, both Husband and Wife are 64 years old and both parties intend to retire a year later at age 65. When they divorce, all of their community assets and obligations will be equally divided, including all of their retirement benefits. Shortly after their divorce, both parties will retire. At the time of retirement, both parties will be in similar financial circumstances, with similar assets and incomes. Spousal support may be paid by the Husband for only a year or less until he retires, even though it was a 40-year marriage and even though, during the marriage, he earned a lot more than his Wife. He will not owe spousal support to his Wife after he retires because the parties’ financial circumstances will be equal or nearly equal.
Here is another example. Assume both parties were married for twelve years, had no children, are both in good health, and both are 37 years old, with full-time jobs at the time of the divorce. If the Husband earns $200,000 per year and the Wife earns $75,000 per year, a court is almost certainly going to order the Husband to pay the Wife spousal support because of the difference in their incomes. However, because the parties are both young, with no children, and both have decent jobs, a judge may decide the spousal support cuts off after six years (possibly less; possibly more). Even though it was a marriage that lasted more than 10 years, it’s very unlikely under these facts that spousal support would be ordered for the Wife’s lifetime. Spousal support is a discretionary decision and judges will consider all of the factors set forth in Family Code 4320 before deciding how long spousal support should be paid.
Christina: Are there certain events that will cause spousal support to end, regardless of how long the couple was married?
Ed: Yes. Spousal support will end upon the occurrence of certain events. If the “payor”, which is the person paying support, dies, spousal support ends. If the person receiving support dies, it ends. If the person receiving support gets remarried, spousal support ends. By law, spousal support terminates upon the death of either party or upon the remarriage of the recipient. This law is set forth in Family Code 4337.
Christina: If I have a long-term marriage, and I don’t want to pay spousal support indefinitely, what can I do?
Ed: Generally, if you have a long-term marriage, it is very difficult to get the court to set a spousal support termination date, particularly when dealing with very long marriages. If you have a twenty-year marriage and you go to trial, usually, no matter how much the payor wants a termination date, the court usually isn’t going to give one. The court will simply decide the amount of support that should be paid and then order that that amount be paid “until further order of the court”. This phrase, “until further order of the court” means it will be up to the payor to come back to court in the future, one or more times, as circumstances change, and ask the court to reduce spousal support until support is reduced to zero. If you are negotiating a settlement in connection with a long-term marriage and the payor wants a termination date, usually, the payor is going to need to make some kind of financial concession to get the termination date.
Christina: When it comes to the issue of the duration of spousal support, you and your spouse will need to have a discussion and reach an agreement, based on your particular circumstances. You may decide to go with the “half the length of the marriage rule” for a short-term marriage. You may decide to go with the “half the length of the marriage” rule for a long-term marriage. You may decide to go with a duration that is significantly shorter or longer than half the length of the marriage. You may decide to enter into an agreement whereby the amount of support is gradually stepped down over a period of time, which divorce lawyers refer to as a “Richmond Order”. In the next video, we discuss Richmond Orders and other types of spousal support orders.