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Long term v. short term marriages

From a statutory perspective, the length of the marriage can be a factor both in property division as well as spousal support. What is the significance behind labeling marriages “short term” or “long term?” Where can you find the definitions of a short term marriage as opposed to a long term marriage? This blog will address those issues.
Unfortunately, you cannot run to a law book or statute to find the definition of what lawyers or judges refer to as a “short term marriage” or a “long term marriage,” at least, not in Wisconsin from what I am aware of. Also, the opinion on what constitutes short term or long term, may vary, depending on who you ask. 50% of marriages in the United States fail at the 7 year rate. So, I think the easy answer to what defines a “short term marriage,” is 7 years or less. Some may stretch that to 10 years or less to define what represents a short term marriage. A long term marriage is usually defined as a marriage lasting more than 20 years. You won’t find too many lawyers or judges who will fight the idea that any marriage of 21 years or more falls within that category. The gray area of course is the 11 to 19 year length of marriage and how it may affect property division or spousal support (maintenance). What difference does it make in terms of how long the marriage is?
As to property division, if you are married a short length of time, and brought property into the marriage, you can advocate to the trial judge that based on all the factors under sec. 767.61 (property division statute), that based on the length of the marriage and property brought into the marriage by either party, you should be awarded your pre-marital assets; that is an argument almost impossible to make if you are married long term, and exceedingly difficult, if you fall into the gray area of 11-19 years. The shorter length of time you are married, the more likely the court will restore to both parties property that they brought into the marriage and will only divide up the marital assets acquired after the marriage, or any significant increase of the pre-marital asset that occurred during the marriage.
The length of the marriage is also a significant factor when it comes to dealing with the issue of maintenance (spousal support). In a short term marriage of less than 7 years, it is exceedingly difficult to convince the trial court that one spouse should support the other, the logic being, the parties are simply not married long enough to warrant the court to order maintenance payments. There can be exigent circumstances in a unique case where the court might consider it, but generally if you are married less than 7 years, the answer is probably going to be no. Some judges may even say no to any marriage of less than 10 years. If you fall into the other category, married more than 21 years, the marriage will be considered long term, and if there is a disparity in the respective incomes, and considering all of the factors under sec. 767.56, (maintenance statute) there certainly is going to be a maintenance order. Further, on long term marriages, under Wisconsin law, the court will start with the presumption that the net available income should be split in two, and that the maintenance order be indefinite in duration. On marriages of 11-19 years, the court has discretion as well to set the amount of maintenance and instead of setting an indefinite spousal support order, may set a fixed duration term, to the spousal support order.
So, the next time you hear someone say, “what difference does it make how long you are married,” you tell them, that the length of the marriage is a very significant and compelling factor that the court must consider both in deciding property division, if a short term marriage, or in a longer term marriage, the length and amount of spousal support.

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