How Long Do You Have to Be Married to Receive Spousal Support?

By Heather Frances J.D.

Couple with lawyer

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Spousal support, or alimony, refers to the payments made to one spouse by the other during a separation of after a divorce. It is based either on an agreement between the couple or by a determination of the court. The purpose of spousal support is to limit any unfair economic effects of the divorce to the receiving spouse who is typically a non-wage earner or the lower-wage earner of the two. For example, a spouse who left the workforce to raise the couple's children might need money to get job training that will help her support herself after the divorce. While the length of the marriage is a factor that courts consider before awarding spousal support, it is usually not the only consideration.

State Laws Vary

State courts set spousal support in accordance with state laws and guidelines. State laws can vary, but they typically describe a series of factors judges should consider before awarding alimony. For example, California law requires that judges consider 14 factors, including anything the judge determines is just and equitable under the circumstances. State laws may also set restrictions on the types of alimony courts can award, such as permitting alimony for job training purposes but limiting alimony for other purposes. Thus, it is important for spouses to research their own state's laws on spousal support.

Longer Marriages Encourage Support

Typically, the duration of a couple's marriage is one of the many factors judges must consider when awarding spousal support of any type. Generally, judges have discretion when awarding support, meaning they are not required to award support in any case. In some states, like Florida, judges have general guidelines for support awards that are based on the length of the marriage. In Florida, courts are likely to award permanent alimony payments only for long-term marriages -- those lasting longer than 17 years. Shorter-term marriages may qualify for other types of alimony depending on the circumstances.

Support Comes in Different Forms

States can permit several types of support -- and the type of support they award may depend in part on the length of the marriage. For example, Florida judges can award permanent alimony for the rest of the recipient's lifetime, durational alimony for a certain set period of time, bridge-the-gap alimony to get a recipient spouse back on her feet after the divorce, or rehabilitative alimony to help a recipient spouse obtain job training. Courts are more likely to award rehabilitative or bridge-the-gap alimony in short-term marriages of less than seven years, while they are unlikely to award durational alimony unless the marriage lasted at least seven years.

Other Factors Considered

Since the duration of the marriage is only one factor the court must consider, judges look at the totality of the circumstances before making a support decision. These other factors may include the requesting spouse's education and training, each spouse's earning capacity, the separate property of each spouse, the standard of living established during the marriage, the ages and health of both spouses and the balance of hardships caused by the divorce.