How long do you have to pay alimony after a divorce?
Is it for months, years or forever?
And where do you start to find out?
Let us dive right into the question. Everything we write here is about California family law.
How long do you have to pay alimony after a divorce judgment?
If your divorce is truly final, then you have a divorce judgment which sets forth specific orders regarding alimony.
That divorce judgment may be after a contested divorce where the judge made the decision on alimony.
That divorce judgment may be after an uncontested divorce where you and your ex-spouse resolved the issues.
Regardless, how long you have to pay alimony after a divorce may depend in large part on the judgment language.
Is the language in your judgment the typical alimony language?
For example, the typical alimony order states one person pays the other person alimony at a set amount each month until:
- Death of either party,
- Remarriage of the person who receives alimony, or
- Further order of the court.
In short term marriages, as we discuss below, there is usually an end date for alimony. In long-term marriages, it can be left open ended or there can also be an end date.
There are numerous different ways a judgment may recite alimony terms. Therefore, those terms can significantly impact how long a person has to pay alimony after a divorce.
So what is the lesson here? An experienced family law attorney should carefully review your divorce judgment. That attorney can then tell you what impact it may have on how long you have to pay alimony.
Let's talk about short and long term marriages
You may wonder what we mean by a short-term marriage.
Typically, California law calls a short-term marriage a marriage of under 10 years. If a marriage is for example only five years in length, it is a short-term marriage.
But what about a marriage that is nine years 11 months?
Is that a short-term marriage even though it got very close to the 10 year mark?
Short answer is, "it depends." The court has the power to treat a short-term marriage as a long-term marriage. It also has the power to sometimes treat a long-term marriage like a short one.
There is no black-and-white rule on the 10 year topic
Our experience is unless there are unusual circumstances involved, if the marriage is nine years or less, it will be treated as a short-term marriage.
A marriage that is between 9 to 10 years can sometimes be in that gray area.
A long-term marriage is a marriage that is 10 years or longer
Typically, per California Family Code 4336, the court continues to reserve its jurisdiction to order alimony in a long-term marriage without a termination date unless the parties agree otherwise or the court orders otherwise.
But, as you will read below, just because spouses hit a 10 year marriage does not mean the court will not terminate alimony.
How long do you have to pay alimony after a divorce in a short-term marriage?
We will assume there are no unusual terms in the divorce judgment regarding the alimony. We will also assume the divorce judgment does not have its own termination date for alimony.
In such a scenario, a person who had a short term marriage usually pays alimony after the divorce judgment until approximately half the duration of the marriage.
And if the judgment does not contain an express termination date, that person must go to court and ask the court to terminate alimony.
Don't make the mistake of making assumptions alimony will terminate on its own
The mistake some people make is to assume just because they have paid alimony for half the duration of a short-term marriage, they can simply stop paying it.
But unless the actual divorce judgment terminates alimony at the half-way mark, the alimony may continue after that time. That is why an attorney must review your judgment to give you advice.
So how long you have to pay alimony after a divorce judgment in a short-term marriage is not something you can assume.
Just because you hit the one half way duration of the marriage mark does not mean alimony automatically ends. Instead, you should seek a family law attorney's advice to tell you when the appropriate time is to proceed to court and end alimony.
How long do you have to pay alimony after a divorce in a long-term marriage?
Let's assume the judgment does not have its own termination date, the judgment simply states alimony is paid until the death of either party, the remarriage of the person who receives alimony or further order of the court.
The length of time will depend on whether there is a material change of circumstances that justifies the paying person to go to court and seek a modification.
We discuss this further below...
While death and remarriage automatically cut off alimony, unless the parties agreed otherwise in their divorce judgment, alimony in a long-term marriage can go on for more than the one-half the duration of the marriage.
For example, in a 12 year marriage, alimony can certainly exceed the six year mark. But alimony can also be terminated under the six year mark if there are proper material change of circumstances.
How long do you have to pay alimony after a divorce in a very long-term marriage?
California law does not define a very long-term marriage. For practical purposes, we consider marriages of 20 or more years to be very long-term.
And practically speaking, it is probably easier to terminate alimony in a marriage that is 10 years and one month that it is in a marriage that is 30 years and one month. How much easier of course depends on the facts of each case.
So let us now talk about the very important material change of circumstances that can greatly impact how long a person can pay alimony after a divorce.
Material change of circumstances that affects the paying person's ability to pay
A common basis to modify alimony is a material change of circumstances that affects the paying person's ability to pay. Ability to pay is a significant component of any alimony order.
Typical material change of circumstances that affect ability to pay include:
- A reduction in the paying person's income,
- An increase (typically unexpected) in the paying person's expenses, or
- Retirement at retirement age
The above are not the only grounds. Each of these may be grounds for a downward modification or termination of alimony.
What is termination?
When we refer to the word termination, there are two types. Termination of alimony may simply mean alimony is set at zero. Termination of jurisdiction, which is the court's power, is something different. Terminating the court's power based on a material change of circumstances in ability to pay is harder to obtain in a long term marriage.
In short term marriages, a reduction in ability to pay may terminate the court's power to order alimony depending on how long the person has already paid alimony.
For example, if the person who seeks the modification and reduction or termination is close to the one-half duration of the marriage mark, the court may set alimony at zero and then also order it terminated at the one-half duration.
These types of proactive orders help the parties not have to come back to court unless there are further material change of circumstances before then.
We encourage you to also read our article on how to avoid paying alimony that is too much and for too long.
Material change of circumstances that affects the receiving person's "need" for alimony
Just as ability to pay can impact alimony, so can "need." Need refers to the person who receives support and their need for ongoing support. The following are a few common examples of events that can impact need:
- The receiving spouse's increase in income,
- The receiving spouse's cohabitation with a non-marital partner,
- The receiving spouse's reduced living expenses, or
- The receiving spouse's acquisition of assets which reduce or eliminate a need for ongoing alimony. We sometimes see this in situations where the receiving spouse receives an inheritance.
The above are not the only events that can impact "need."
All of these can have an impact on how long a person has to pay alimony after a divorce. If a receiving spouse's need decreases or is eliminated, the spouse who pays alimony may proceed to court and seek a modification.
Again, that modification may be a reduction in alimony, placing alimony at zero or even terminating the court's power to order further alimony.
And once again, whether the marriage was of a short-term or long-term duration can have an impact in what direction the court goes.
What impact does the failure to make reasonable efforts to become self-supporting have on how long a person has to pay alimony after a divorce?
We wrote an article on this topic of Gavron warnings in California. We encourage you to read it.
A spouse who receives alimony and who has been given an admonition to become self-supporting plays a dangerous game if he or she fails to make reasonable efforts to become self-supporting.
In such a circumstance, the court has the power to reduce alimony or eliminate it altogether.
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We hope you enjoyed this article on how long you have to pay alimony after a divorce.
Please contact us for a strategy session and we can discuss your specific situation and determine whether you have proper grounds to modify alimony after your divorce or, if you are the spouse who receives alimony, whether you have proper grounds to oppose such a request.
We also encourage you to check out our comprehensive guide on California alimony laws.
I know you know this but we will write it anyway - nothing contained on this page or on our website is legal advice nor should it be construed as such. It is not intended to apply to your specific situation or answer your specific questions.