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Earning Capacity and California Spousal Support Decisions – In re Marriage of Torok

There are a number of factors that often go into a court’s decision to award spousal support payments in California divorce cases, most of which revolve around the individual circumstances of the divorcing spouses. That includes their assets, income, and ability to earn money. As the Third District Court of Appeals recently explained, a Court will even consider limitations on a spouse’s earning power that are caused by his or her own mistakes.

hand-cuffs-12754-mHusband and Wife divorced in February 2001 after roughly 21 years of marriage. Prior to dissolving the marriage, a trial court found that Wife was bringing in about $800 a month in income, while Husband was earning almost $4,000 per month. Wife was one year away from earning a degree in early childhood education and was likely to need additional time to obtain a teaching credential. The court ordered Husband to pay Wife $450 in monthly spousal support.

Husband filed a motion to terminate the spousal support eight years later. He said the circumstances had changed since the court issued its order. Husband was now retired, and Wife would soon start earning her share of his retirement benefits. Although Husband said his income had declined since retirement, records showed that his average monthly income was $6,750, a sum that included additional benefits for retiring early. Husband further stated that he was losing about $250 per month on a rental property and that his other monthly expenses exceeded $3,100. He said he was now living with his fiancé, who shared some of those expenses.

Wife, for her part, opposed the motion. In fact, she argued that the spousal support should be increased to $600 per month. She said that she’d recently lost her job after being convicted on felony DUI charges. Wife added that her income – from spousal support and unemployment benefits that were soon to run out – totaled about $1,200, while her expenses were more than $1,500.

A trial court ultimately denied Husband’s motion, finding that Husband had been able to maintain the middle-class standard of living that the couple had enjoyed during the marriage, while Wife had not. The Court said he had also accumulated significant assets and retained the ability to continue paying support to Wife at the $450 rate.

The Third District affirmed the decision on appeal, finding that the Court didn’t err in concluding that any change in circumstances wasn’t sufficient to justify a change to the original spousal support award. Indeed, the Court noted that Husband’s income appeared to have increased since the time that the award was ordered.

The Court also rejected Husband’s claim that Wife had refused to look for work. “In setting spousal support, the trial court must consider certain factors, including the earning capacity of the supported spouse, and the statutory goal that the supported party becomes self-sufficient within a reasonable time,” the Court explained. Here, the Court said there was evidence in the record showing that even if Wife was able to work, she didn’t have a sufficient opportunity to do so. She was still on probation for the DUI at the time, and this probationary status limited her ability to find a job, according to the Court.

As this case shows, spousal support determinations are highly individualized decisions that depend largely on the circumstances of the spouses divorcing. It is imperative that a person considering divorce explore this and other legal issues with an experienced family law attorney.

If you’re considering seeking a divorce in California, contact San Jose spousal support lawyer John S. Yohanan. With more than 30 years of experience, Mr. Yohanan is an accomplished family law attorney who has helped a number of clients resolve spousal support and other issues on optimal terms. Call our office at (408) 297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.

Related blog posts:

Earning Capacity, Child Support Calculations – In Re Marriage of Browne

Modifying Spousal Support Agreements in California – In re Marriage of Baysinger

Spouse Accuses California Divorce Judge of Sex Discrimination – In re Marriage of Goodpaster