When going through a divorce, there are many factors that figure into what ultimately happens. Every divorce is different, and a judge will make a ruling based on many factors including whether or not children are involved, the income disparity between spouses, educational disparity, the events leading to the divorce and how long the couple has been married.
Length of Marriage in Divorce: Introduction
While exact details vary from state to state, divorce laws generally recognize three classes of marriage duration: 0-7 year, 7-17 year, or 17 years and beyond. These are given the distinctions of short-term marriage, middle-duration marriage and long-term marriage respectively.
What the length of a marriage tells a judge, more than anything else, is how closely tied together spouses are and how difficult the split will be for the non-earning spouse or the lesser-earning spouse. Length of marriage has to do with how established individuals are in their particular standard of living; the longer the marriage, the more established they are. Divorce laws regarding length of marriage have to do with making sure that both parties are protected against drastic financial change.
Length of Marriage and Alimony
Where length of marriage has the greatest impact is in the determination of alimony. Alimony is defined as a financial payment made by the higher-earning spouse to the lower-earning spouse as a way of smoothing the transition out of marriage. Each alimony arrangement is designed according to the unique details of the couple seeking a divorce, and in many cases, the specific amount is based on a mathematical formula for the income disparity being addressed.
Types of Alimony
Length of marriage impacts alimony in the form of what type of alimony is received. There are generally two broad types of alimony: temporary and permanent.
Temporary alimony may end after several years and is designed to support the non-earning or lesser-earning spouse while he or she goes to school, finds a full-time job or otherwise improves earning potential to the point where alimony is no longer needed.
Permanent alimony is what it sounds like – it is a permanent arrangement whereby one party pays the other party until another marriage or another drastic life situation occurs, such as loss of job or hospitalization or death.
Short Term is Temporary, Long Term is Permanent
As may be predicted, someone is more likely to get temporary alimony with a shorter marriage and more likely to get permanent alimony with a longer marriage. Long-term marriages are often built around the premise that one party did most of the non-economic work such as cleaning, child care, cooking and general home maintenance while the other party brought in most of the financial backing for the partnership. People who have been out of the labor force for a short amount of time are more likely to be able to go back and get a job whereas people out of the full-time labor force for 17 or more years would find their finances significantly stressed by a dissolution of a marriage.
As such, this is how length of marriage generally works with alimony:
Short-term (0-7 year marriage): Presumption against permanent alimony
Middle-duration (7-17 year marriage): Gray area, dependent upon many different factors
Long-term (17+ year marriage): Presumption of permanent alimony provided that there is the need and ability to pay
Presumption of or presumption against means that there needs to be a significant issue to swing the determination of alimony against that standard.
Length of Marriage and Property Division
Where property division is concerned, the longer a marriage lasts, the more a judge will generally try to distribute marital assets on a 50-50 basis. This determination is made for the same reason as the determination for alimony. In short-term marriages, ex-spouses may still be more attached to their individual possessions and be more able to divide things up in a non-equitable fashion in order to get themselves in the same position as they were before the marriage. However, in a long-term marriage, couples have blended their lives, so it makes more sense for a judge to make as close to a 50-50 judgment on property division as possible.
Length of Marriage and Child Custody & Support
Child support and child custody are always made on the basis of the best interests of the child. However, these best interests are determined in one way or another depending on how long a couple has been married. For shorter term marriages, the interests of the child will be more based on which party will be able to provide a better growing and living environment. For longer term marriages, the interests of the child will be more based on a 50-50 split because the child will have developed a strong bond with both parents and will want to spend time with both.