June 27, 2007

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

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.