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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 in 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. In the case of marriages with lengths of less than 10 years, courts tend to order spousal support to be paid for one half the duration of the marriage.

The California Family Code provides for rebuttable presumptions concerning the characterization of a long term versus a short-term marriage. For example, let’s say a couple was married for nine years and two months, but they also lived together five 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 10 years yet the court departed from the presumption and ordered spousal support as though they had been married for only half of that time.

Frequently, we are asked by clients if they can expect the court to issue “lifetime” or “permanent” spousal support after the dissolution of marriage, with the idea that they can expect income from support well into retirement and beyond. 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. Most family law attorneys are very reluctant to make a non-modifiable order without a termination date.

And let’s say that 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 her 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. For example, the court can order a step down, where the amount of support paid will gradually decrease over a period of time. Or if the recipient was unemployed or a stay-at-home parent for the duration of the marriage, the court can order that person to receive job training or a higher level of education to become employable by a certain date.

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 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. It will mean making sacrifices and undergoing exploration on your part to find a new career, but divorce often results in a little soul searching as you travel a path to a new life. The final reality is most people who were worried about the transition after a divorce end up realizing it was the best change in their life.

Donald Schweitzer is founder and partner of The Law Offices of Donald P. Schweitzer, based in Pasadena, Calif. As a Certified Family Law Specialist and former District Attorney, he has extensive background in domestic violence, divorce and child custody issues. Prior to becoming an attorney, Mr. Schweitzer was a Police Officer for approximately 10 years. As a faculty instructor at the National Business Institute, Schweitzer teaches continuing legal education classes on the topic of ethics and advanced courses on family law. He is an active member of the Pasadena Bar Association, the Los Angeles County Bar Association, American Bar Association, and the California State Bar.

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