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Fact or Fiction? A 10-year marriage guarantees alimony (spousal support in California) for life

Marital happiness lasts for approximately seven years before the average spouse begins to get restless and stray from their vows of faithfulness - or so says the theory of "The 7-Year Itch." It probably isn't a good idea to put significant stock in a theory popularized by a movie starring Marilyn Monroe, but the concept is not complete fiction.

The underlying truth of this theory is that marriage is hard work. In the honeymoon phase, spouses are more forgiving or willing to compromise. Tension, resentment and frustration can take time to build. For some couples, the breaking point may come at seven years. In California, 10 years is another marital milestone built on both fact and fiction.

Fiction: The '10-year rule' guarantees alimony for life

The announcement of a divorce is usually followed by a wealth of advice from friends and family members. While well-intended, this advice is not always correct and can have negative consequences when followed.

One of the most troublesome involves the 10-year rule. This is one of the most widely misinterpreted divorce laws in California. Many people interpret this rule as "you will be guaranteed alimony for life if you hit the 10-year mark in your marriage." This could not be farther from the truth!

Alimony orders have an expiration date

When you make the decision to divorce, there is a good chance that you won't be in the same financial position as your spouse. What if you chose to be a stay-at-home parent, are between jobs or simply have a smaller annual salary? Knowing that you will be forced to support yourself can be frightening - and frankly, it would be unfair to make you live without some financial help.

Spousal support laws in California protect spouses who are at a financial disadvantage at the time of divorce. 

The amount of alimony helps you be able to pay for your basic needs and attempts to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage. The duration of alimony helps give you a reasonable time to find a new job, go back to school or otherwise make the transition from being married to single.

Under California Law, the general presumption for duration of support is "one-half the length of the marriage," for marriages of fewer than 10 years. This means that if you were married for six years, the judge has the right to limit alimony for one-half of the marriage if the need exists (three years). 

Section 4336 allows the court to maintain jurisdiction over the issue of alimony in marriages of a long duration.

The California Courts will also say that support ends upon the death of either party, remarriage or the entry into a registered domestic partnership of the recipient. 

In the case of a marriage of long duration which is defined by statute of being 10 years or longer a court cannot set a termination date now.  This is defined by Family Code Section 4336. 

The law states that marriages of 10 or more years automatically qualify as long term, which is where the popular name "The 10-year rule" originates. 

What is the effect of this law?  The Court has the right to modify spousal support based upon a substantial change of circumstances (unless the parties have previously agreed to a termination date).  

Ultimately spousal support will end.  It is not if, it is when. Only the future will answer.

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