In Spolum v. D’Amato, A14-1335, A14-1720 (Minn. App. August 17, 2015) the Court of Appeals reversed a Ramsey County trial court decision awarding Permanent Spousal Maintenance and remanded to the trial court to recalculate Spolum’s monthly expenses, D’Amato’s income, and to reduce the monthly maintenance award of $14,072 and further held only Rehabilitative Spousal Maintenance was appropriate.
D’Amato, an orthopedic surgeon, and Spolum, a flight attendant, were married in 2001 and had one son, born in 2003. The parties separated in July 2010. A legal separation action was started and then the parties attempted reconciliation but continued to live separately. A divorce trial began in August 2013. At that time, Spolum was age 49 and D’Amato was age 45.
To plan for the wedding, Spolum took a leave of absence as a flight attendant and extended it after the 911 attack and returned to work 5 years later. She quit in 2006 because her commute was stressful. She is high school educated with some college and art school classes.
Spolum worked at a clothing boutique and as a yoga instructor. When the parties reconciled she opened a chocolate shop, but the business failed. Trial evidence reflected she was “brilliant and creative”. She was interested in animal-welfare and was on the board of directors for an animal-welfare organization. Spolum desired to establish a career as an animal welfare advocate. A vocational rehabilitation evaluation was completed concluding without additional training she could work in a position earning between $10-$12 an hour, but could attend a two year vocational program.
During the marriage D’Amato was let go in a physician practice. He applied to Health Partners. He was initially rejected, but Spolum testified she invited the head of HealthPartners to their home to advocate for reconsideration and D’Amato was then hired. D’Amato also began a second job as an independent medical-legal consultant, working approximately 20 hours a week. Near the end of 2011 D’Amato quit the second job as it was time-consuming and stressful causing him anxiety and to be unhealthy. He testified he was already working 50 hours a week at HealthPartners.
D’Amato testified his earning in 2013 would be $800,000 and that he was seeing fewer patients as they were being diverted to other doctors. The Director of HealthPartners testified there has been a decrease in patient volume and surgeries. D’Amato’s income has been decreasing since 2011 and he predicted this trend would continue. He could earn additional income based on his production, but patients were decreasing. D’Amato testified he projected his salary in 2014 to be $750,000. D’Amato proposed the court use his 2013 income of $800,000 and that he pay spousal maintenance for 4 years to allow Spolum to acquire employment and training.
In the Judgment the trial court set D’Amato’s income at $950,538 using a 3 year average and despite finding he had quit his second job to create a more balanced life. The judge stated that in the event the court overestimated his income D’Amato was in a better position to correct the error by pursuing additional options.
The trial court found Spolum’s discretionary spending at $9,943 per month and then modified that to $8,383 based on D’Amato’s claim this was even higher than she requested. In the original decision the court ordered $18,225 per month in spousal maintenance which was subsequently amended to $14,072 after post-trial motions. Apparently the trial court made findings concerning Spolum’s earning capacity and ability to re-enter the job market, but ignored those facts in making it a permanent maintenance award. The court found she was in good physical and emotional health and found no reason why she could not pursue a successful career because she was healthy, intelligent, articulate, creative, and capable.
The court found permanent spousal maintenance was appropriate based on: (1) the high marital standard of living, (2) the length of the marriage, (3) Spolum will never be able to support herself in the manner close to the marital standard of living, and (4) the fact D’Amato’s income would not decrease. Spolum was awarded $1.2 million dollars in assets, including the Caribbean home “Seacliff” which D’Amato requested be sold and artwork of $110,000, but found the assets were not available until retirement.
The court of appeals reversed the amount and duration of the award and stated Permanent Spousal Maintenance was not warranted and that the award should be Rehabilitative. The court explained a court may award spousal maintenance (1) if a spouse lacks sufficient property, including allocated property to provide for reasonable needs considering the standard of living, or (2) is unable to provide self-support through appropriate employment, in light of the standard of living. Minn Stat. 518.552, subd.1. In determining an award the court should evaluate (1) the financial resources of the requesting party, including marital property awarded to the party, and the party’s ability to meet needs independently, (2) time necessary to become self-supporting, (3) marital standard of living, (4) duration of marriage, (5) loss of employment benefits and opportunities foregone by requesting party, (6) age, physical condition, and emotional condition of the requesting party, (7) ability of the obligor to meet the needs of both parties, and (8) contribution of each party in the acquisition, preservation, and depreciation of marital property. Minn. Stat. 518.552, subd. 2.
The court stated the trial court put an overriding emphasis on the standard of living, which was merely one factor to be considered. The court did not agree the assets awarded to Spolum were not available until retirement. The court held the evidence and findings support an award of rehabilitative maintenance, not permanent spousal maintenance. The court noted the standard of living was over emphasized because Spolum also testified the standard of living was excessive and unnecessary and was a mistake and was based on D’Amato previously working two jobs and that it was unfair to consider a lifestyle based on income from a prior second job that contributed an average of additional income of $200,00 per year. The court also stated the parties had only lived together as husband and wife for 9 years. It noted prior to the marriage Spolum made $46,000 annually as a flight attendant. The court stated the evidence only supported a rehabilitative award.
The court also stated the trial court failed to consider Spolum’s dubious use of assets during the separation where she transferred $125,000 from the parties’ joint account and only had $40,000 left.
The court stated the trial court’s finding of the need for discretionary spending of $8,343 per month was excessive. The court also found the trial court clearly erred in finding D’Amato’s income was $950,838 and that spousal maintenance should be based on the obligor’s income at the time of trial. The court noted it was unreasonable for a court to require D’Amato to work a second job in order to satisfy a maintenance award when Spolum is not required to work even one job.
The issue of spousal maintenance is a very difficult matter and requires careful evaluation of numerous factors and often the assistance of experts, including an experienced family law attorney. It is critical to promptly retain an experienced divorce lawyer if spousal maintenance is a potential issue.