There's a common misconception that when a couple divorces after more than 10 years of marriage, California has a rule requiring that alimony will continue indefinitely. In reality, there's no such 10-year rule. Still, 10 years is an important milestone that may affect a judge's ability to revisit the issue of spousal support later. Here are the facts.
California Family Code Section 4336 says that when a couple gets divorced or legally separated after a marriage "of long duration," the court "retains jurisdiction" over the issue of spousal support indefinitely—unless the couple has agreed otherwise or the court order includes a definite termination date.
Retaining jurisdiction doesn't mean that spousal support will necessarily be permanent. It simply means that the judge has the legal authority to continue making decisions in the case. So the judge may reevaluate the alimony issue and modify the previous order if the circumstances justify a change.
Under the law, a marriage will be considered "of long duration" if it lasted longer than 10 years, from the time the couple married until they finally separated (not including any periods of temporary separation in the meantime). But judges may decide that some marriages qualify as lengthy even if they lasted less than 10 years, depending on the circumstances.
Example # 1: Jamie and Jordan were married for six years. As part of their divorce, the judge ordered Jamie to pay Jordan spousal support in the amount of $500 per month for three years, with no reservation of the court's jurisdiction beyond that. If Jordan was laid off or became disabled during the first three years after the divorce, the judge could decide to increase the support payments. But once the three years have passed, the court no longer has jurisdiction over spousal support. So even if Jordan experienced a job loss or medical problems that made it hard to earn a living, the judge wouldn't have any legal authority to extend or change the amount of alimony payments.
Example # 2: Jamie and Jordan were married for 12 years. In their divorce, the judge ordered Jamie to pay spousal support for eight years. However, because their marriage was long term, the court has jurisdiction indefinitely. So the judge could decide to grant Jordan's request to extend spousal support beyond eight years or to adjust the amount of the payments, if the change is warranted under the circumstances
Example #3: Jamie and Jordan were married for a little less than 10 years. During their marriage, Jordan insisted that Jamie not work, and they enjoyed a lavish lifestyle on Jordan's income alone. Although Jamie started working as a real estate agent after the couple split (in their fifties), those earnings couldn't begin to support the kind of lifestyle they'd had during the marriage—and it wasn't clear they ever would. As part of their divorce, the judge ordered that Jordan pay Jamie spousal support for an indefinite period of time. Jordan appealed, but the appellate court held that under the circumstances, the judge had jurisdiction to modify the spousal support order any time in the future—at least until Jamie remarried or either of them died (which is when alimony must end under the law).
Under California law, judges must consider a long list of circumstances when they're deciding how long spousal support should last, including an expectation that the spouse who's receiving alimony should become self-supporting within a "reasonable" amount of time. In marriages that aren't considered long term (usually lasting less than 10 years), that usually—but not always—means half the length of the marriage.
Learn more about spousal support in California, including all of the factors judges must consider when making alimony awards, regardless of how long the marriage lasted.