There is a reason that God created the Court of Appeals; sometimes, the trial court flat out gets it wrong with spousal support. When the trial court misinterprets the facts or misapplies the law, it is up to the party harmed to file an appeal in hopes that the Court of Appeals will fix the trial court’s error.
The standard of review—essentially, the benefit of the doubt the court of appeals must give the trial court—is huge for divorce cases. The standard is almost always an “abuse of discretion,” which means that the Court of Appeals can only change the trial court’s decision if it is very clear that the trial court completely lost its way and the result is wrong.
Spousal support cases are some of the most technical issues in divorce court. The ability to increase or decrease spousal support can hinge entirely upon the wording in a divorce decree. There are often as many issues in changing spousal support as there are in awarding spousal support in the first place. Every financial fact of the parties can be examined by the Court, even if they’ve been divorced for decades.
A recent case by the Court of Appeals reversed a Magistrate and a Trial Judge on a dispute about spousal support. The ex-husband retired from his career job at age 58 after 32 years of service. This was not early retirement by the rules of his employer. He remarried, moved, and briefly worked a second career job for close to a year until it was just too much for him, given his age and current health. The ex-wife was receiving close to half of his pension from his first job and he was still ordered to pay the original spousal support amount, even though he had no income from employment. So, he returned to me (Anne Harvey) to file a motion to reduce his spousal support.
The divorce decree included language stating that “in order to authorize further support the Court must find that there has been a significant change in one or more of the following: A) employment status; B) income levels of the parties; or C) health of the parties.” The ex-wife did not agree and argued that the court did not have the authority to reduce the spousal support obligation even after he retired and had no active income. Both the magistrate and then the judge agreed with the ex-wife and said that he had to keep paying. So, Anne Harvey exercised his right to appeal and wrote briefs for the Court of Appeals to consider.
The Court of Appeals found that the trial court had the power to both increase and decrease the spousal support, and that a significant change of circumstance had occurred that made the spousal support amount extremely unfair. The case is now on remand to the trial court to issue a new decision pursuant to the instructions given in the Court of Appeals decision.
So, write your divorce decree carefully and focus on the exact language in the spousal support section. Know that if you appeal, the odds are stacked against you because trial courts get the benefit of very big doubts in decisions they make in divorce cases. The bottom line? Sometime a long shot pays off big!
If you find yourself in a similar situation Contact Anne Harvey firstname.lastname@example.org and let us discuss what I can do for you.