The California Family Code differentiates marriages that last for ten years or longer and marriages that last for less than ten years. Many Californians believe that this distinction means that, if a marriage lasts for ten years or longer, then the payer of spousal support (called the supporting party) must continue paying spousal support for the rest of his or her life. While it may at times appear this way that is in fact not the law.
Section 4320 of the California Family Code governs the factors a judge should consider when deciding whether (and how much) spousal support to award. The Code instructs judges that the main, all-encompassing goal is that the supported party become self-supporting within a reasonable time.
How much time is a reasonable time? According to the statute, generally it will be one-half the length of the marriage. This means if I were married for eight years, and upon getting divorced the judge ordered me to pay spousal support, then the judge may wish to continue the spousal support for four years. How will you know how long you have to be paying or receiving spousal support after your divorce? That will depend on many factors, including how smart and aggressive your lawyer is.
You may be thinking, “So what’s this I heard about some ‘Ten Year Rule’?” According to the Family Code, when a marriage lasts ten years or longer, we have good reason for calling it a “marriage of long duration.” A “marriage of long duration” is not generally subject to the “one-half the length of the marriage” rule. When spousal support is awarded after a marriage of long duration, the support may continue for a very short period of time, or for an extremely long time, until remarriage of the supported party, or until the death of either party. There simply is no way of knowing. But, the kicker is, the statute itself states that, even though a marriage may have lasted longer than ten years, nothing in the statute “limits the court’s discretion to terminate spousal support in later proceedings on a showing of changed circumstances.” This means it is up to the judge to decide whether or not the spousal support should continue. And it is up to you (or your lawyer) to convince the judge why he or she should continue or terminate the spousal support.
Now you should have realized that, even if you were divorced after being married for ten or more years, this does not mean that you received a sentence (or lottery) of a lifetime of spousal support.
(As of 4-16-07, some of the applicable CFC sections are: 4320, 4322, 4323, 4333, 4336, and 4337.)