Celebrity divorces make headlines much more often than they make any real difference in the lives of ordinary folks like you and me. Occasionally, though, an interesting angle to a high-profile case gives all divorcing women something useful to think about. One recent example: Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, celebrated movie star couple and parents of three children, have decided to call it quits. Their announcement was reportedly made one day after their tenth wedding anniversary. Why is that significant? Is there something special about a marriage that lasts ten years plus one day?
Every breakup involves a variety of different issues, and I don’t have any inside information about what happened between Affleck and Garner. However, I can envision several possible rationales behind their timing. For example, when you think about it in psychological terms, ten years is a nice round number. A decade represents a good chapter of our lives, and for many, it makes emotional sense to begin the next chapter with an announcement of the previous chapter’s conclusion. It’s also often true that when a couple shares publicly that their marriage is ending, the wrenching emotional work of breaking up is largely behind them. By the time the news gets beyond closest friends and family, they are through agonizing over whether splitting up is the right thing to do. In short, a couple might be essentially done with thinking emotionally; now, they’re ready to think financially.
On that note, here are some of the financial considerations that come into play, regarding the timing of the Affleck/Garner split:
Establishing a Date of Separation
Whatever else a divorce represents – the end of a once-loving relationship, a new parenting arrangement, the beginning of separate lives – legally speaking, divorce is about division of assets and debts. To determine various property interests and establish a valuation date for certain assets, the courts designate a formal Date of Separation (DOS).
In some cases (especially if the parties disagree), nailing down a DOS can be tricky. By making a formal, joint announcement of their intention to divorce, Affleck and Garner have streamlined that whole process, taking any uncertainty out of the picture, and reinforcing their stated desire for a cooperative, amicable split.
So, why do it one day after their tenth anniversary?
Allowing for More Spousal Support
In California, where the Affleck/Garner divorce will be adjudicated, marriages of ten or more years are deemed “long-term” marriages. That has implications for the amount and duration of spousal support that can be ordered by the court. After a long-term marriage, the court retains jurisdiction over such decisions, and a judge can award the lesser earning spouse alimony of greater amount and/or duration than if the marriage had lasted less than ten years.
Ensuring Eligibility for Social Security and Military Benefits
If a marriage passes the ten year mark, the lesser earning spouse (still, most often, the wife) can receive Social Security benefits based on the other spouse’s earning record, when she reaches an eligible age. She is not eligible for this benefit if her marriage lasted less than ten years.
The same is true of certain military benefits. Ten years of marriage, it appears, signifies to the government a degree of seriousness sufficient to warrant federal benefits for the lesser earning spouse.
Meeting Time-Sensitive Provisions of a Prenuptial Agreement
I don’t know if Affleck and Garner have a prenuptial agreement in place, or if so, what it says. If they did have a prenup, it’s possible that the agreement specified different terms after ten years of marriage. Several such provisions might have influenced the timing of the announcement of their decision to divorce.
For instance, some couples include a clause in their prenups dictating that after a certain number of years of marriage, an additional financial benefit is to be paid to the dependent spouse if they divorce. Some agreements specify an actual sum that the lower earning spouse is to receive for each year of the marriage; the amount may increase with each passing year. The amount itself, of course, depends on the earnings and assets of the wealthier spouse.
Many prenups contain something called a “sunset provision,” stating that after x years of marriage, the entire prenup, or certain of its provisions, becomes null and void. If Affleck and Garner have such an agreement and wanted certain provisions to lapse, that could explain their decision to delay their formal split until after ten years had passed.
Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, as an exceptionally high-earning couple, were probably not primarily concerned with some of these factors. Still, they are important for most divorcing women to consider. Financially speaking (all else being equal), waiting to end a marriage until after its tenth year can be a good move. Census data show that in the U.S., the average duration of first marriages that end in divorce is eight years. If you’ve been married almost a decade and the relationship is beginning to unravel, there might be sensible reasons to take a cue from the Affleck/Garner case and stick it out for ten years and a day. When it comes time to collect Social Security, you might be glad you did.
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