June 27, 2007

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

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.