Recently the Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld an award for permanent spousal maintenance to a 39-year-old mother following a 15-year marriage. The husband made approximately $140,000 in 2011, but his income had declined consistently over the past four years. The wife's expert witness testified that she could earn about $24,000, but, with an associate's degree, she could increase this to about $34,000. The court awarded the former wife $3,500/month for the next two years, and then $3,000/month thereafter. This award, along with the child support, results in the former wife receiving about half of her former husband's after-tax future earnings. This may seem unfair. However, this case demonstrates how important the maintenance issue can be in a divorce.
In divorces, courts often award maintenance to one spouse as part of the divorce judgment and decree. Under Minnesota statutes, courts may consider: 1) the financial resources of the spouse seeking maintenance; 2) the time necessary to acquire education to find appropriate employment; 3) the age and health of the recipient spouse; 4) the living standard established during the marriage; 5) the length of the marriage; 6) the contribution and economic sacrifices of a homemaker; and 7) the resources of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought. Additionally, courts consider factors such as current labor market conditions and the spouse's expenses when determining appropriateness of maintenance awards. Because there are so many factors that the courts may consider, spousal maintenance determinations are very fact specific. However, in practice, the standard of living established during the marriage, and the ability of a spouse to meet a similar standard through employment, i.e., “achieving self-sufficiency,” appear to be more significant factors in maintenance awards determinations.
What's surprising to many people is that these spousal maintenance awards are often termed “permanent.” Under Minnesota law, when it is a close case as to whether spouses will ever be able to support themselves, the default is for the court to issue a so-called permanent award for spousal maintenance. This often seems unfair to the spouse faced with paying the permanent spousal maintenance because the courts seem to make permanent determinations based on conditions that are often only temporary. Courts determine appropriateness of awards based on present earning capacity (taking into account the local job market) and the paying spouse's ability to pay. Often, these factors can change within a few years (or less).
However, this is not lost on the courts. The Minnesota Statute covering spousal maintenance shows a preference for permanent spousal maintenance awards in close cases, but hedges this with acknowledgment that an issuing court often leaves “permanent” spousal maintenance orders open for later modification. Thus, the term “permanent” is somewhat of a misnomer because the paying spouse can often move the court to reopen the award if his or her income has changed or the supported spouse's earning capacity has improved. To actually modify the order, a court must find that there has been a significant change in the parties' circumstances and that the change renders the original decree unreasonable and unfair. Factors that support the modification of a maintenance award include: substantial increase or decrease in income, substantial increase or decrease in need, a change in the cost of living for either party, extraordinary medical expenses, a change in the availability of appropriate health care coverage and a substantial increase or decrease in health care coverage costs.
Because spousal maintenance awards can be significant, it is always important to get competent advice from an attorney. Contact Hance Law Firm for a free consultation and let us help protect your rights.