Determining whether spousal maintenance should be required in a divorce can be a complicated process under Minnesota law. If alimony is appropriate, calculating the amount of the maintenance award may be hotly contested. Family court judges are given wide discretion in calculating spousal maintenance awards. This kind of financial support is generally thought to be based on need. The purpose is to ensure that the recipient is able to maintain a fairly similar standard of living following the dissolution as he or she had during the marriage.
In many marriages, both spouses enjoy a career and earn income. However, there can be a large disparity in income between the spouses. In today's economy, wages are not always steady. Variable schedules, less than full-time hours, and seasonal variations may make it difficult to compare one income to another. Often, a spouse may argue that their soon-to-be ex is not making the full income she or he is capable of earning.
The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently handed down an unpublished opinion that highlights how courts may impute income to a spouse, evaluate if rehabilitative (or temporary) maintenance is appropriate, or if the court should award permanent maintenance out of fairness. While the decision includes many arguments and mathematical challenges, we will only touch on some of the more salient points in this blog post.
The couple had been married for 17 years. During the marriage, court records show that the wife worked part-time during the school year to earn an income and took summers off to care for the children. When the divorce papers were filed, the wife allowed her teaching license to lapse, although she never worked as a full-time teacher. At the time of the divorce she worked as an associate educator for roughly 35 hours each week and 41 weeks during the school year.
She admitted to the court that she might be able to find a full-time job and work the entire year. She hoped to someday earn her master's degree in social work. The court found that the woman brought in slightly more than $28,000 each year in actual income, then imputed additional income for the weeks she did not work. The court decided the woman had an earning capacity of $37,436. Meanwhile, the parties agreed that the husband made roughly $200,000 per year at the time of the divorce.
Among an array of other issues beyond the scope of this post, the parties fought over how much income the court should impute, or attribute, to her earning capacity. Additionally, the wife asked for permanent maintenance. The husband argued that she should be required to attain additional credentials and should only receive alimony for a limited time.
The husband brought in a vocational evaluator who testified that the woman would be a good candidate for graduate work, or in the alternative could reinstate her teaching license and increase her income. The evaluator believed the woman could make around $64,000 within five years of earning the advanced degree. The wife provided evidence that graduate school would cost $50,000 and her income would start at around $40,000, after graduation.
The court found that the woman was not underemployed in bad faith. The trial court ruled that she should not be required to incur a $50,000 expense and expend time before being eligible for a slightly higher salary than the court was imputing to her. The judge found that the woman was appropriately employed. Moreover, the court imputed some income to the wife's earning capacity. In the end, (after an array of other calculations involving the expected budgets of each of the parties) the court set permanent alimony at $3,100. The appellate panel affirmed.
Not all wage, income, and earnings calculations are made solely by reviewing W-2 forms or tax records. In determining alimony and support issues, it may be necessary to bring in expert witnesses to provide evidence for the court. These disputes are complicated. Arguments may involve more than just the math, but also a consideration of the equities. If you have concerns about spousal maintenance, seeking the guidance of an experienced lawyer can help you obtain peace of mind that your rights being protected.