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The Truth About Lifetime Spousal Support

By Don Schweitzer

When actors Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner announced their plans for divorce last June, the significance of their 10-year marriage became the focus of media attention. In the California Family Court a 10-year marriage is considered a long-term marriage and most expect that spousal support, if ordered, would be for a long duration. Whereas marriages with lengths less than 15 years, courts tend to order spousal support to be paid for one half the duration of the marriage.

Under the California Family Code there is room for interpretation concerning the characterization of a long-term versus a short-term marriage. For example, let’s say a couple were married for 9 years and 2 months, but they also lived together 5 years prior to getting married. The court may determine that their relationship is considered a long-term marriage. On the flip side, I have seen cases where a couple was married for more than 15 years yet the court departed from the presumption and ordered spousal support as though they had been married for only half of that time. So there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to years of marriage and support.

Frequently clients expect the court to issue “lifetime” or “permanent” spousal support. The truth of the matter is under the current law there is no such thing as “lifetime spousal support,” unless the payer foolishly signed a stipulation and is ordered to pay “non-modifiable” support until either party’s death or remarriage of the payee, which is rare.

Assume the payer is ordered to pay a significant amount of spousal support over a great length of time. The second reality is that spousal support can be modified to zero if the payee is in an accident or loses his job, and spousal support will be terminated if the payer dies or if the recipient remarries.

In California, the court has to balance out many variables when considering or denying the requested amount and length of spousal support. These variables range from income and assets, the nature and duration of the relationship, children, education level, age, standard of living and even domestic violence. And the outcome will vary case-to-case.

Spousal support does not guarantee financial support for a lifetime. In fact, the court will expect that eventually each party will reach a level of financial self-sufficiency. Over a passage of time, the court can then decrease or terminate spousal support, even when the court’s expectations of future employment have not been met. Your best financial security net is to prepare for a new means of financial income once your divorce is on track.

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