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How ‘Standard of Living’ Impacts Spousal Support Decisions – In re Marriage of Kuhs

Courts look at a wide variety of factors in deciding whether a person should be required to pay support, and how much support should be paid, to a former spouse following a divorce. Chief among them is the couple’s standard of living during the marriage. California’s Fifth District Court of Appeals recently took on the issue in In re Marriage of Kuhs.

money-choise-concept-1439274-mHusband and Wife divorced in 2012 after 15 years of marriage. Wife had previously suffered a hypoxic brain injury while giving birth to the couple’s only child, and the aftermath of that traumatic experience unraveled the marriage, according to the Court.

The trial court ordered Husband, a partner in a law firm, to pay an unspecified amount of monthly support. The judge relied heavily on the opinion of a court-appointed expert, who determined that the couple’s standard of living from 2004 to 2008 included a total gross income of more than $10,500 per month. According to the expert, this included $7,500 in income from Husband’s work and another $3,100 or so that Wife received in disability benefits. As a result, the trial judge found that Husband had about $7,500 in income per month for purposes of calculating his ability to pay support.

Wife appealed the ruling, saying that the support award was too low because the trial judge wrongly looked at Husband’s prior income level, rather than his income at the time of the divorce, and didn’t properly consider the couple’s standard of living during the marriage. The Fifth District disagreed.

As the Court explained, Section 4320 of the California Family Code lays out a total of 14 factors that must be considered in determining long-term spousal support awards. Those factors refer to the spouses’ individual earning capacities, contributions to each other’s training and career development, and ability to engage in gainful employment, as well as their age and health and the duration of the marriage. The law also requires a judge to take into account “the needs of each party based on the standard of living established during the marriage.”

Here, the Appeals Court said the trial judge rightly determined that the couple maintained a middle-class standard of living. The judge noted that they lived in a “modest home” that was worth less than $100,000 at the time of Wife’s injury and that they drove older vehicles. They later moved to a larger residence, in part thanks to contributions from Husband’s separate property. The judge also said the couple’s total income hovered around $65,000 at the time of the injury and was less than $90,000 when they separated.

While Wife argued that they’d moved into an “upper-middle class” lifestyle at the time of the separation, the Court said she waived the argument by not raising it after the trial court issued a tentative decision. It similarly noted that she agreed that the analysis would be based on the appointed expert’s review of the couple’s finances during the four-year period ending in 2008. Nevertheless, the Court added that the evidence in the record supported the trial judge’s conclusions.

San Jose divorce attorney John S. Yohanan has extensive experience handling a wide range of divorce issues, including those related to custody and visitation rights. He has more than 30 years of family law experience and has successfully helped clients defend these and other rights. Call (408) 297-0700 or contact us online for an appointment.

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