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How long do you have to be married to get alimony?

This article is written by Melanie Simons.

Alimony is one of the first things that comes to mind when people think of the word “divorce.” Alimony, often called “spousal support,” is a payment one spouse makes to the other during or after legal separation or divorce. One important thing to note is that during a divorce, the terms of spousal support are set separately from terms for child support.

You may be asking yourself a number of questions: “Who gets alimony?” “How is alimony calculated?” “How can I get alimony?” In a divorce, the spouse who receives alimony is typically the one who is considered to be at a financial disadvantage. Suffering from long-term health challenges or being out of the workforce for a number of years while raising children are examples of factors that contribute to a spouse’s financial disadvantage.

So, how long do you have to be married to get alimony?

While a marriage’s length doesn’t technically matter when it comes to alimony, it can have a considerable impact on if or how alimony is awarded. Alimony isn’t automatic. It needs to be negotiated as part of the divorce process.

Let me explain.

There isn’t a federal or state regulation that mandates how long you have to be married to collect alimony. Alimony in Texas is just like alimony in New York. Typically, the longer the marriage, the more likely it is that one spouse has focused more on professional advancement, leading to higher pay, while the other has taken on primary responsibility of taking care of the family or home.

There is no fixed rule stating how long someone has to be married to receive alimony but I often suggest using 10 years as a rough dividing line when thinking about spousal support.

Do children impact alimony?

Children only impact alimony as it relates to one person choosing to stay home with the kids or changing his or her career to accommodate child-care. It’s a different issue from child support, which is negotiated separately in the divorce process.

That’s not to say that having children guarantees that one of a divorcing pair will get alimony.

How do you address financial needs when evaluating alimony?

When my clients are thinking about how alimony may apply to these situations, I ask that they consider their financial needs and expectations for their next phase in life. If you plan to request alimony as part of your divorce agreement, you’ll want to start with a clear picture of your current and future financial circumstances. Doing so can help develop compelling rationale that will be shared during the divorce process. This reasoning and insight is needed to persuade a judge or your spouse of your need for financial support.

An important consideration early on in a divorce is the method you and your spouse will use to end the marriage. This is where the financial story will unfold. There are several options available to end a marriage including uncontested divorce, mediation, or legal court proceedings. I typically advise my clients to seek mediation, which can be less expensive, faster, and less emotionally draining than going through the court. (That said, there are some circumstances that make court a better forum for presenting your case for alimony, as advised by your lawyer.)

How alimony is calculated?

Think of the start of this process like the start of a movie production. (Stick with me here.) This film stars you. It is about your life during and after your marriage. Start by assembling the best crew: a skilled divorce attorney and a well-versed financial advisor (your co-directors), and supportive friends, family, colleagues, and online groups (your cast). It’s a who’s who of the most qualified people coming together to do a job and do it well. Negotiating alimony may or may not be among the film’s critical scenes.

This movie idea is more than a simile. It helps you to see your marriage at a healthy, objective distance. It allows for the time and perspective you need to help you prepare for divorce. It gives you the space and resources to recognize some powerful emotions which should be addressed before sitting down with a mediator or across from a judge. The urge “to just get this over as quickly as possible” can creep in but you need time and patience to achieve the best outcome.

Let’s look at two stories that show how different marital circumstances can affect the outcome.

After 11 years of marriage, Tracy, 36, decided to separate from Roberto, 35.

Originally city dwellers, Tracy and Roberto jointly purchased a home in a nearby suburb when their first of two kids (now six years old and eight years old) came along. They bought their house [at a relative bargain] with a low-interest mortgage. Tracy returned to work as a primary care physician after the kids were born and arranged to leave work by 4:30 every day for daycare pickup. Roberto, an adjunct professor, is working his way up to becoming a full-time professor by teaching extra classes around the city. Roberto loves their town’s biking trails while Tracy likes its schools. With both kids getting older, Tracy plans to focus more on her career with the goal of starting her own medical practice. The couple jointly earned about $300,000 last year with Tracy being the primary breadwinner.

Paula, 55, and Charles, 57, mutually decided to part ways after 29 years of marriage.

Paula attended two years of college before becoming a stay-at-home mom with their two children. The kids are now college graduates and living on their own. Charles worked hard to build up his insurance brokerage and plans to gradually sell the practice to his longest-serving agents. Their suburban five-bedroom home is fully paid off. Their lifestyle is comfortable, not extravagant, and their retirement savings are modest. Paula is facing what may be a decade or more of supporting her mother. Charles earns an annual salary of $300,000.

These stories resolved in markedly different ways despite their similarities in income, family size, and homeownership.

Tracy had a clear professional road ahead and higher earnings than Roberto. She wasn’t able to argue a financial need for alimony. Instead, she pushed to keep ownership of her home, an asset with strong potential to appreciate. By renting an apartment nearby, Roberto has more cash available to pay child support and the ability to save to buy his own home.

Paula’s picture was murkier, as she had a need for more immediate need for cash to help care for her mother. She and Charles agreed to sell their home and equally share the proceeds, providing her with a nest egg and him with the means to fund alimony payments of $10,000 a month. Paula and her legal team vigorously pursued this outcome as she spent decades working in the home and interrupted her education and career (resulting in lost earning potential) to take care of the children. Charles retained full ownership of his business. Having worked through the emotions of selling her longtime family home, Paula is pleased with renting right in town with many of the comforts of their old place and none of the big home upkeep.

What do I need to know about alimony?

Every divorce story is as unique as the individuals involved.  No matter your circumstances, start by building a knowledgeable team. To prepare for a conversation about alimony, consider:

  • Your team: Assemble a trusted team of family members, friends, financial advisors, lawyers, and anyone else you need by your side.
  • Your assets: Take a holistic view of your financial situation — your assets, your monthly spending, etc. — so you are better prepared to begin a conversation around alimony. Some statesmandate that real estate and other assets acquired during marriages are split 50/50. If you signed a prenup, don’t assume that it will hold up in court. Sometimes, prenuptial agreements can be disputed over changes to state laws, unconscionable terms, or unforeseen circumstances.
  • The type of divorce proceedings: Whether you decide on mediation, uncontested divorce, or courtroom proceedings will impact how much time and money your divorce takes and what forum you’ll be using to make your case for alimony.
  • Common financial considerations: 2018 is the last year when alimony payments can be deducted from federal taxes. When it comes to alimony insurance, make sure it’s covered by your spouse’s life insurance policy so that in the event of a death you will continue to receive payments.
  • Getting remarried: Don’t assume you can get alimony if you remarry. It could be up for re-negotiation – or termination – depending on the terms you agreed to in your divorce settlement.