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New Case Law: Satisfying the original purpose behind support, Part II June 27, 2007

Posted by shelleycm in Dissolution, Legal Developments, Spousal Support.
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In a case decided the same day as Cheever, discussed below, the Court of Appeals determined that a support order should not be terminated — even after the remarriage of an ex-spouse — where the original purpose of the support award remains unfulfilled.

In Lenhart and Lenhart, ____ Or App ____ (2007), a couple split after a 30-year marriage, during which the husband was employed (making $11,000 per month) and the wife remained at home.  As part of the dissolution, the husband was ordered to pay transitional, compensatory, and maintenance spousal support.

The wife in this case eventually remarried (wisely to an attorney) and moved to Missouri.  She was unsuccessful in finding employment, even after completing a bachelor program in English.

The husband moved to terminate the maintenance spousal support award (and the insurance policy he was required to maintain while he was obligated to pay support), based on substantial change of circumstances due to her remarriage.

The trial court disagreed, finding there was no substantial change of circumstances in the wife’s remarriage (even to an attorney) and her potential earning capacity.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court.  The original finding in favor of a support order was that the wife “require[d] spousal support in order to have a standard of living that is not disproportionate to the one which she enjoyed during the marriage.” Here, given that she continued to be unemployed, this factor didn’t change her circumstances, even though she now had a bachelor degree in English.  The husband also argued that because of her remarriage, wife’s new husband’s income should be imputed to her and this was a substantial change of circumstances.  The Court of Appeals disagreed with husband here, as well, finding that even if half of her new husband’s income was imputed to her, it was not enough to merit a finding of a substantial change to modify or terminate the spousal support order.  The original purpose of the order — to support wife in a lifestyle roughly commensurate to that of the marriage — would not be fulfilled if the support order terminated.

As in Cheever (and discussed here earlier in Deboer), this case demonstrates just how important it is for a judgment to explicitly lay out the reasons behind a support order: if, for example, the judgment had been clear about support terminating at remarriage, or when other conditions had been met (such as the completion of her degree), the husband might have been successful in getting the spousal support order terminated.

New Case Law: Satisfying the original purpose behind support, Part I June 27, 2007

Posted by shelleycm in Dissolution, Legal Developments, Spousal Support.
1 comment so far

Very often people expect that there is one hard-and-fast formula that courts apply to awarding spousal support in every case. While there are statutes that outline the factors that a court should look at when determining if spousal support is necessary, these determinations are always very fact-specific. It’s a good idea for the judgment to set out exactly what the reasons behind support are, in case one party might want to modify the support order later.

Last week the Court of Appeals decided a case which demonstrates just how important individual circumstances are to a spousal support case. In Cheever and Halperin ____ Or App ____ (2007), the court was faced with a very particular set of facts. In Cheever, the husband was a physician and his wife a technician at OHSU. When they divorced in 1999, the husband was ordered to pay spousal support through 2022, when the wife turned 65.

A year after the divorce, however, the wife remarried a retired dentist, with whom she lived on a sailboat, sailing around the world. She agreed that her ex-husband’s spousal support payments should terminate, and the court approved the modification.

However, when the wife’s new marriage did not work out and she returned to Oregon, she asked the court to reinstate her spousal support payments, arguing that the purpose behind the original spousal support order had not been satisfied.

Not surprisingly, the husband objected, based on the notion that his ex-wife had deliberately chosen a new, bohemian (and less expensive) lifestyle – not the high standard she’d become accustomed to during her first marriage. Because the support order was one of maintenance, which is designed to support a spouse with lower income in a “not disproportionate” lifestyle than that of the marriage, the husband argued that he didn’t have any burden to support her in that lifestyle now that she had lived more frugally.

The trial court didn’t agree with husband: it found the original purpose of the support award hadn’t be satisfied, and so the original order was reinstated. The trial court rejected the husband’s position, and said that the husband got “a four year break” in his payments, but that he must continue to pay through 2022.

The husband appealed, claiming the trial court erred in four separate ways. The most important argument he made were that the trial court placed an undue emphasis on the wife’s past and current circumstances, but not the reason the support was terminated.

The Court of Appeals rejected the husband’s argument. The trial court had the power to reinstate the award based on statute (ORS 107.136); the court didn’t place any undue emphasis on any one factor in its decision, and the gist of the husband’s argument – that it simply wasn’t fair for him to have to resume support after his wife’s remarriage and lower standard of living – just wouldn’t fly. The reason for support at the time of the dissolution and at the present time were the same, and the wife’s position now and then were also the same. The support order would continue until 2022.