One of the factors that California courts usually take into account when ordering child support awards is the spouses’ current income and their ability to earn more money. Earning capacity can be tricky to calculate, especially in cases where one spouse has been out of the workforce for some time in order to care for kids. In In re Marriage of Browne, the First District Court of Appeals explains that the issue generally comes down to the best interests of the children.
Husband and Wife entered into a marital support agreement shortly before a trial court awarded their petition for divorce. Under the terms of the MSA, which was incorporated into the divorce judgment, Wife was given primary custody of the couple’s two children. Husband, meanwhile, was required to pay monthly child support based on his then-current salary.
Wife wasn’t working at the time of the divorce, and therefore didn’t have any income. The MSA provided that Husband agreed not to seek to have income imputed to Wife before September 2011. A court can impute income to a spouse based on his or her ability to earn money, thus reducing the amount that the spouse receives in spousal or child support.
In January 2012, Husband filed a motion seeking to impute income to Wife based on what she could be earning if she was working. In the litigation that followed, Wife explained that she had been out of the workforce since giving birth 8 years earlier and was having trouble finding a job, despite applying for nearly 50. She also said that was going to nursing school full time, a decision that was later supported by court-ordered vocational evaluator.
The trial court declined to impute income on Wife. While Husband argued that Wife should have sought temporary, part-time work, the Court said she wasn’t required to take any jobs that would interfere with her school schedule or with her ability to take care of the kids. When husband persisted by filing additional motions for relief, the Court responded by ordering him to pay $3,000 in Wife’s attorney fees.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the First District said the Court acted within its bounds by declining to impute income to Wife. “When determining a parent’s income for purposes of calculating child support… the court may, in its discretion, consider the earning capacity of a parent in lieu of the parent’s income, consistent with the best interests of the children,” the appeals court explained. Thus, even if Husband showed that Wife could be working, the trial court wasn’t necessarily required to impute income based on her earning capacity. Indeed, the court called Husband’s effort to impute income “counterproductive” because doing so would necessarily reduce the amount of money available to support the kids by reducing his child support payments.
A marital settlement agreement is a good first step that can often help spouses resolve some of their issues without requiring heavy input from a court. But complications, like those related to earning capacity and imputing income, can and do arise. That’s why it’s important to seek the advice and counsel of an experience family law attorney. With more than 30 years of experience, John S. Yohanan is an accomplished California family law attorney who has helped a number of clients resolve complicated legal issues on optimal terms. Call our office at (408) 297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.
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