SPOUSAL MAINTENANCE IN MINNESOTA
The Minnesota spousal maintenance statute, 518.552 (2012), provides that the court may provide for maintenance if the spouse seeking maintenance (a) lacks sufficient property to provide for his or her reasonable needs, considering the standard of living established during the marriage, including a period of time for training or education or (b) cannot adequately support himself or herself, “considering the standard of living established during the marriage and all relevant circumstances,” including the need for the custodian of a child to not be required to be employed outside the home.
The statute provides that the maintenance can be temporary or permanent, considering relevant factors such as (a) the financial resource of the party seeking maintenance, (b) the time for the party to obtain sufficient training or education to be fully or partially self-supporting; (c) “the standard of living established during the marriage,” (d) the length of the marriage, including whether a homemaker’s absence from employment has permanently diminished his or her earning capacity; (e) any foregone employment opportunities or benefits; (f) the party’s age and physical and emotional health; (g) the earning and financial ability of the other spouse to pay maintenance; and (h) each party’s contribution to the property and the contribution of the homemaker.
Recent Minnesota Cases on Maintenance
Three recent court decisions demonstrate that maintenance requires careful analysis of the specific facts of each case. In Passolt v. Passolt, the Minnesota Court of Appeals held that a court can consider a maintenance recipient’s prospective ability to become fully or partially self-supporting without finding that the party acted in bad faith to be unemployed or underemployed. In this case, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision granting permanent spousal maintenance to the wife of a t.v. newscaster. The wife had last worked as a special education teacher before her first child was born in 1985. The trial court found that the wife could be retrained to be a special education teacher and could earn $36,000 annually. The court noted that the children had completed high school and so were emancipated. The Court of Appeals held that the court would need to reexamine its award and consider a step reduction after the wife completed her retraining to provide an incentive for her to seek employment.
Relying on Passolt, in Powell v. Powell, the Court of Appeals affirmed a decision providing for a step reduction in maintenance of $2,000, noting that the incentive to work was appropriate as the wife had been trained as a registered nurse and expert evidence indicated that she could earn at least $54,000 if she worked. The court noted that the parties’ son was 17 years old and able to drive. The court also noted that a spouse could not reasonably expect to maintain the standard of living during the marriage when that standard was financed through debt or through overtime or other work that was no longer available.
In contrast, in Gouette v. Gouette, the Court of Appeals affirmed an award of permanent maintenance, noting that the husband could move to modify the award if the wife acquired qualifications and increased her earnings. Noting that each case must be judged on its own facts, the court held a permanent award was justified in this case as (1) the amount of the award was below her reasonable needs, presumably giving the wife an incentive to increase her earnings; (2) the wife was not employed; (3) the children were 12 and 15; and (4) the wife had no employment experience, and the job market was poor. In this case the wife had a high school diploma and a few college credits (but no degree). She had worked intermittently at a few jobs. Shortly before the divorce she borrowed over $35,00 to start a jewelry business that ultimately failed. The child custody situation factored into this case as the court noted that “both the spousal maintenance and child support awards are based on the fact that [wife] will have physical custody of the children and the hope that she will be working full-time; ‘simply increasing her income’ would require a considerably outlay of both time and money.”
As this brief discussion indicates, spousal maintenance is one of the most difficult issues in divorce, influenced by numerous different factors. Because spousal maintenance requires a fact-specific analysis, it is critical to have the assistance of an experienced Minnesota divorce lawyer.