Change in Circumstances Needed to Modify Awards of Spousal Maintenance

Change in Circumstances Needed to Modify Awards of Spousal Maintenance

Under Minnesota law, Minn. Stat. 518A, Section 39, subd. 2., a court may order a modification in a spousal maintenance order if there has been a change in circumstances that makes the order now unreasonable. The court may do this because of any of the following:

  1. Increased or decreased gross income of the obligor or obligee;
  2. Substantially increased or decreased need of the obligor or obligee;
  3. Receipt of welfare benefits;
  4. Change in the cost of living, based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics;
  5. A child’s extraordinary medical costs;
  6. A change in the availability of health insurance coverage or a substantial increase in its cost;
  7. The addition or an increase or decrease in work-related or education-related child care expenses; or
  8. Emancipation of a child.

It is important to note that an ex-spouse’s refusal to obtain employment is not a change in circumstances that requires making a temporary award of spousal maintenance permanent.  

In Van Steenburgh v. Clyma, A13-1318 (Minn. Ct. App. Mar. 3, 2014), the Court of Appeals rejected an ex-spouse’s motion to make a temporary spousal award of $10,000 per month permanent. The court noted the dissolution court had determined that his reasonable monthly budget was substantially less at $7691.35.

The court also found that evidence showing that the ex-husband had refused to rehabilitate himself and find employment was sufficient to support the denial of the motion. An ex-spouse who receives temporary maintenance is required to make a good faith effort to rehabilitate and find employment. Here, an employment expert had opined that the ex-spouse could be earning a salary of $80,000 or more after three or five years of employment. Also, he had received $138,000 more than his expenses as temporary maintenance, and, with the assets that had been distributed following the divorce, he had the resources to support himself.

The evidence that he had not sufficiently tried to rehabilitate himself included: (1) a long time period when he did not apply for any jobs; (2) taking just one community college course during the period of temporary spousal support; (3) only focusing on a narrow set of jobs and refusing retraining and not considering employment opportunities outside his area of expertise.

An ex-spouse’s decrease in housing expenses, based on the sale of the former marital home and purchase of a less expensive home, is not a substantial change in circumstances that requires modification of a spousal maintenance order.

In Thomas v. Thomas, A13-905 (Minn. Ct. App. Mar. 3, 2014), the original divorce decree provided that the ex-husband, a self-employed dentist, would pay his ex-wife permanent spousal maintenance of $7,440 per month, which was to be lowered to $5,200 when the parties’ youngest child was emancipated. After the youngest child was emancipated in June 2012, the ex-wife sold the former marital residence (which had become her property) and relocated to a condominium in Florida.

After losing in the district court, the ex-husband appealed, arguing that the substantial decrease in housing expenses and increase in voluntary expenses, such as vacations and a car payment, made the spousal-maintenance agreement unfair because it made him support her in a lifestyle that was higher than the marital standard of living. The Minnesota Court of Appeals found his argument that the expenses did not reflect the marital standard of living lacked merit, as the parties lived very well on his income during the marriage, driving nice cars and taking vacations. Furthermore, the court emphasized that the parties had agreed on the permanent spousal maintenance obligation, and that agreement is given great weight in motions to modify maintenance. The court emphasized that the ex-husband receives a tax benefit from paying spousal-maintenance. Even though the wife was relatively young and cohabitating with a significant other, the court found that there was no change in circumstances that required modification of spousal maintenance.

If you believe that a change in spousal maintenance is needed, whether an increase or a decrease, you should consult Jeffrey R. Arrigoni Attorney at Law immediately.