How Long May Alimony Continue?

Alimony awards are rarer in divorce cases than they were before the social and economic changes of the last half century. Courts will, however, award it in some cases. My first solo trial included a situation where alimony should not have been requested: the other spouse, who was retired after being the primary breadwinner, asked for alimony from my client, and then argued that the purpose was to fund a new business expecting to create a significant number of jobs. I didn’t need to spend much time arguing against the award.

The question sometimes arises how long alimony may be ordered. Usually, except in the longest marriages and situations of unusually imbalanced earnings capacity or where the recipient has a disability or chronic illness, it will only last a few years at most. Because courts in Oregon and Washington generally cannot extend the duration of alimony after it is scheduled to end, occasionally an attempt will be made to order a small monthly payment to leave open the possibility of a later order to increase the award. As noted in a recent case from Washington, such an order usually is improper.

The parties in the case divorced after a long marriage. Their combined property was worth about $7 million, and the wife received slightly more than half. The wife, who was 55 at the time of trial, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis about six years before the divorce. The trial court also awarded alimony at $10,000 a month for seven years, followed by $1,000 a month for ten years, and finally $100 a month for life or until remarriage.

On appeal, the husband argued that the alimony awards after the first seven years were improper placeholders designed to leave open the possibility of future increases. Previous Washington cases had ruled that extended alimony had to be based on proof of need, not potential future need.

The spouses both had experts testify how frequently MS progresses to a significantly debilitating condition, but the trial court did not draw any conclusions from this evidence, and declined a request by the wife to order the husband to fund a life care plan. Instead, the trial judge simply found that there may be future medical expenses. The Court of Appeals read the trial judge’s ruling to mean that, at least as to the $100 a month for life, he simply wanted to leave open the possibility of an amendment, which was improper. The court’s ruling was based in part on the policy preference that divorce is supposed to be a final determination of financial matters.

As to the $1,000 per month for ten years, however, the Court of Appeals noted that the trial judge had noted that there would be medical expenses that should be addressed and that there was a risk the wife might have difficulty finding insurance. This was enough for the ruling to be approved.

In Oregon, nominal awards as placeholders are only allowed if the parties agree. Whether the $100 a month for life award would be considered a placeholder is uncertain, but Oregon law also allows for a motion to terminate alimony after ten years, so it is less likely to be awarded in the first place.

Requesting alimony requires a careful review of many factors, including the length of the marriage, need, and available income and resources of the spouses. It is hard to predict what a court may award, and only in unusual cases will a very long award be given. If either you or your spouse wants alimony, be ready to discuss it with a lawyer.

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