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Divorce and the Impact of the Length of Marriage

by | Apr 26, 2024 | Divorce, Marriage

I was recently reading through a study that provided a variety of divorce related statistics.  One such statistic indicated that the average length of a marriage ending in divorce was 7.8 years for men and 7.9 years for women.  In this week’s blog we will explore some of the impacts that the length of a marriage has on the issues to be resolved in the event of divorce.  The two biggest impacts are on property division and the right to spousal support.  


Length of Marriage and Property DivisionIt stands to reason that the longer the marriage the higher likelihood that there will be more to divide at the time of divorce.  California is a community property state and anything that gets accumulated from the date of the marriage to the date of separation is presumed to be part of the pot of stuff to be divided.  I have handled divorces where the couple remained married for only a week or two and the only things to divide were the wedding gifts.  I have also handled divorces for couples that remained married for over 50 years with lots of furniture and furnishings, real estate, investments and retirement to divide.  


If it is accumulated during the marriage it is presumed to belong to the community.  There is an exception if it can be shown that the item was gifted or inherited by one of the spouses or was purchased with gifted or inherited money.  


California begins recognizing a community interest in accumulations from day one.  There are some situations where Federal law treats things a bit differently than how California does it which can create some challenges.  One good example of this is a military retirement.  Under California law for each day that the military spouse is employed during marriage, the spouse is entitled to one-half of the retirement value accumulated for that and every day of service during the marriage.  If the couple remains married for five years and the military spouse retires with 20 years of service time, California recognizes a community interest in the retirement of approximately 25% and the non-military spouse would be entitled to approximately 12 ½ % of the monthly pension payment.


Under Federal Law, for a spouse to be eligible for collecting their portion of the retirement directly from the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (tasked with the making of pension payments) the marriage must have lasted for over 10 years.  For marriages under 10 years, the California Court will still make an order for the division of the retirement amount, but to collect it they will need to turn directly to the military spouse to make the payment, since DFAS will not recognize and enforce the order.  It really simplifies enforcement to be able to collect the amount directly from DFAS so it makes a big difference whether you are married for 10 years, versus 9 ½ years.  


Length of Marriage and Spousal SupportThe length of the marriage also has a very significant impact on the issue of spousal support.  The Court will characterize a marriage as either short term or long term, depending on the length and there is a “rule of thumb” that the Court will follow regarding how long spousal support will be paid which is based on how long the marriage lasted.  Let’s look a little closer at each of these:


Short Term versus Long Term Marriage.  When addressing spousal support the Court will look to characterize a marriage as either short or long term.  The presumption is that a marriage that is less than 10 years is considered a short term marriage and a marriage that is over 10 years is considered a long term marriage.  While it can be argued that an under 10 year marriage should be treated as a long term marriage and that a marriage over 10 years should be treated as a short term marriage, this 10 year mark is otherwise the dividing line.  This characterization can significantly impact the duration of support.  For a short term marriage, there will typically be a stop date on support which is one-half the length of the marriage.  For a long term marriage there is typically not a date-certain stop date included.  Support will stop when the supported spouse remarries, when either party dies or can be modified when circumstances change, but there is usually not an end date included.


Rule of ThumbAs mentioned, if your marriage is characterized as a short term marriage, in addition to the terminating events referenced above, there will also be a stop date included indicating when the support will stop, which is one-half the length of the marriage.  If you were married for 8 years, the support order would include a provision that the support would stop after 4 years. If you have a 10 year marriage that is characterized as a short term marriage there would be a stop date in the order after 5 years, but if that same 10 year marriage was characterized as a long term marriage, the support obligation could continue indefinitely.  


RationaleThe longer you remain in a marriage, the more entangled you become and the more reliance you will typically develop in one another.  A short marriage has a lot less impact on your life than a long one.  It stands to reason that the more time you spend together the more responsibility you might have for one another when things don’t work out.  The Court’s rules regarding division of property as well as their standards for duration of support, factor in this notion of becoming more and more responsible to one another with the passage of time.  


Marriage involves making commitments toward one another.  California law makes it clear that included with that commitment (absent written agreement otherwise) is a responsibility to share equally in any property and debt accumulated along with a responsibility to provide for one another.  The more time together, the greater the responsibility.   Your obligation toward one another will differ depending on whether your marriage only lasts a week or two, whether you make it to the average of marriages ending in divorce of 7.8 or 7.9 years, or whether it happens after spending your entire lives together.  With longevity of your relationship comes added responsibility to one another.