The Myth of the Ten-Year Anniversary Mark

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman married in1990. In February of 2001, a spokesman for the couple announced that the couple had separated. The date of the separation became a major focal point with television “talking heads” claiming the major issue was whether the couple had reached the “magic ten-year anniversary mark”. If so, these “experts” claimed, then Nicole would be entitled to permanent spousal support from Tom. According to these “experts”, California law states a wife is entitled to permanent spousal support if she and her husband divorce after ten years of marriage. (Odd coincidence, though; none of these “talking heads” were California family law specialists.)

The “magic ten-year anniversary mark” issue arises again with speculation of whether Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner are separating. If so, these “talking heads” claim, they better do so now because the couple’s ten-year anniversary is imminent. If the couple reaches the ten-year mark and then divorce, Ben will have to pay Jennifer spousal support for the rest of her life.

Sounds like a good law, if you’re the wife divorcing after ten years of marriage, and a terrible law if you’re the husband divorcing after ten years of marriage. However, it is NOT the law. In fact, there never was such a law in California.

In California, spousal support is based on need by the spouse requesting support, the ability of the other spouse to pay it and the standard of living the parties established during their marriage. It is not based on the genders of the spouses. If it is warranted, it will be awarded based on what is just and reasonable to allow the spouse being supported to become self-supporting. The obligation of support itself terminates when the spouse being supported remarries.

However, there is an exception to the basic spousal support law. Where a spouse requests support based on inability to become self-supporting, and that spouse has been supported in a long-term marriage, the court may award long-term spousal support. In California, a long-term marriage is presumed to be of ten years’ duration. (It is not an absolute time-frame.) The law is based on the premise that someone out of the workforce for a long period of time will never be able to generate the education, skill, experience, tenure, and wages of someone who never left the workforce and therefore can never be self-supporting in a manner similar to the marriage. If the court agrees that the spouse may never be self-supporting, the court may retain jurisdiction of the issue of spousal support after the divorce becomes final. This means, that if the spouse paying the support can show that the supported-spouse has become self-supporting or does not need the support, the court can reduce or terminate the support. The law does not provide a life-time guarantee of support to the wife, or anyone, for that matter.

As to whether the marriage of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise lasted ten years, and whether either Tom or Nicole received long-term spousal support, became moot when each married someone else. As to Ben and Jennifer, time will tell.

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