Spousal support (or alimony) is meant to help one spouse maintain a certain level of financial stability after a divorce. In other words, the monthly payments are intended to help the person keep something close to the standard of living that the spouses enjoyed during the marriage. The payments are not necessarily open ended, however. A person who receives spousal support is supposed to make reasonable efforts to become self-supporting, usually by getting a job. But what happens when the person has a medical condition that prevents them from working? That question was recently before the Second District Court of Appeals.
Husband and Wife were married for some 16 years and had three kids before separating in October 2002. They reached a stipulated agreement three years later, under which Wife got sole legal and physical custody over the children. Husband agreed to pay Wife $3,000 per month in child support and another $1,000 in monthly spousal support. The agreement provided that Husband would make the spousal support payments until June 2012, but it stated that the court handling the divorce proceedings could extend that date if needed. As part of the judgment implementing the agreement, the court noted that Wife was expected to return to the workforce – she had a degree in nursing – after “a period of re-training.”
The trouble, according to the Second District, was that Wife’s job skills were outdated, and she had a difficult time working and raising the kids. She then suffered an undisclosed medical impairment that required surgery and hospitalization. Although Wife was cleared to work in January 2012, she became unable to work again just a month later. Husband and Wife agreed that Husband would increase the spousal support to $1,200 and extend it for another five years. Wife later asked the court to increase the payments to more than $3,800 per month and to extend the support period even further. The trial court declined.
Reversing the decision on appeal, the Second District said the circumstances had sufficiently changed to allow the trial court to increase and extend the payments. “A material change of circumstances may be based on a “failed expectation” or “failed assumption” from the existing spousal support order that the supported spouse’s disability was implicitly expected to change and permit employment,” the Court explained. In this case, the Court said, Husband and Wife had assumed that Wife would be physically able to return to the workforce when they reached the agreement. “Instead, her disability became permanent, which limited her earning potential to minimal social security disability benefits,” the Court observed.
As a result, the Second District reversed the trial court’s decision and sent the case back to the trial court for additional proceedings.
If you’re considering a divorce or are grappling with spousal support and other issues in California, contact San Jose spousal support attorney 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 a wide variety of marital disputes. Call our office at (408) 297-0700 or contact us online to schedule a consultation.
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