What you can learn from the timing of Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck's divorce

The benefits of filing after a key anniversary may be worth the wait

By Liz Skinner

Jul 9, 2015 @ 2:00 pm EST

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner Getty

Married couples headed for divorce may want to keep in mind that sometimes it makes sense to wait a bit, just as Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck seem to have done.

The Hollywood couple announced last week, the day after their 10th wedding anniversary, they are splitting up. The famous pair said in a joint announcement on June 30 that they'll continue to co-parent their three young children.

“Ten years is a magical number for a number of reasons,” said Jeff Landers, president of Bedrock Divorce Advisors in New York.

In California, where this famous couple lives, marriages that last at least 10 years are considered “long duration.”

A judge in California and a few other states can award alimony for an extended period of time to the receiving spouse if the marriage lasted at least a decade, Mr. Landers said. For marriages shorter than 10 years, California judges who order spousal support usually do so for about half the length of the marriage.

(More: What new same-sex marriage laws mean for your taxes, estate and retirement)

Many other states, including New York, do not tag marriages as long-duration until the couple has been wed for more like 20 years, he said.

In Texas, no spousal support can be ordered until the couple has been married at least a decade.

It's unclear whether any spousal support will be needed in the divorce of Ms. Garner, 43, and Mr. Affleck, 42, who reportedly are worth about $40 million and $75 million, respectively. The custody of the children also would play into a future agreement.

The fact that they seem to have waited until the 10-year threshold “shows they are at least planning and acting for the mutual benefit of each other at this point, as opposed to some cases where both go for the jugular,” Mr. Landers said.

Ten years is a significant milestone for other important financial reasons, even if they probably don't apply to these famous actors.

For marriages lasting at least a decade, an ex-spouse is entitled to Social Security benefits related to the former husband or wife.

Most people married 10 years can take a benefit equal to half of the ex-spouse's full retirement benefit if they meet certain parameters, such as being older than 62, not married and as long as one's own Social Security benefit would not be greater than what is received through the ex-spouse's benefit.

(More: Do you really know how much your spouse earns?)

John LeMieux, an adviser and principal at Anton LeMieux Financial Group, said these benefits can be a reason to stay married until that 10th anniversary, especially if one spouse did most of the earning. Such a move doesn't hurt the spouse who earned more because the benefits come from Uncle Sam, not the former spouse.

Whether it's worth staying together for such a benefit is a case-by-case decision.

“It's one piece of the puzzle, but it's difficult to give financial advice in an emotional world,” Mr. LeMieux said. “If people are at a place where their marriage is coming apart, they ought to do their due diligence and figure out the best way to end the marriage for both parties and any children.”

A marriage of 10 years also is significant when one spouse is in the military.

A non-military former spouse is entitled to military benefits of the spouse if the marriage has lasted 10 years, said David Horowitz, an attorney with Hottell Family Law Group.

(More: The financial pros and cons of marriage — gay or straight)

Non-serving spouses would do best to hold off in asking for a divorce until after the 10-year threshold, while the military spouse would want to seek a divorce before this important milestone because any award to the ex-spouse would reduce the military pension that the serving spouse would receive, he said.

Healthcare benefits available through the military also are at stake when a couple divorces before that 10-year mark, said Lili Vasileff, founder of Divorce and Money Matters.

Finally, 10 years can be an important marker if a couple had a pre-nuptial agreement that incorporated this milestone.

It could be that a lower-earning spouse might be eligible for a greater split of assets under that agreement if they hold out for the 10-year mark, said Mr. Landers, who recently published a second volume of “Divorce: Think Financially, Not Emotionally” (Sourced Media Books, 2015).

Ms. Garner and Mr. Affleck reportedly did not have a pre-nup.

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