Can a family law judge look at anything outside statutory guidelines to determine an alimony award? This issue was illustrated in a 2010 case. The couple in the case married in 1985 and had two kids. In 1988, the husband earned an MBA and got a job at the Federal Reserve Board. The wife completed one year of college and worked at CVS for 45-55 hours per week. Later she took an administrative assistant job, which reduced her pay by $10,000 while her husband advanced in his career, so that she could look after the kids. The couple lived a middle-class lifestyle.
In 2006, the husband moved out and filed for divorce. The wife filed a counter-complaint seeking property, child support, alimony, and more. During the divorce trial, the wife argued she needed alimony because she wasn’t self-supporting. The husband argued she could support herself.
The court issued an oral opinion that she couldn’t maintain the middle-class lifestyle unless alimony was awarded. Therefore, the judge awarded $3000 per month in alimony.
The husband appealed. He argued the trial court shouldn’t have considered the spousal support guidelines of the AAML in addition to the statutory factors and shouldn’t have looked only at the difference in incomes in deciding how long it would run.
The Court of Special Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling. It found that the trial court had analyzed the issues in terms of the statute and also stated that the AAML guidelines weren’t authoritative. It also found the trial court looked at more than the difference in income in determining the duration of alimony.
The husband asked the Court of Appeals for a writ of certiorari to answer whether the trial court had improperly relied upon alimony guidelines not authorized by the statute.
The appellate court explained that that statute requires the trial court to look at 12 factors and also issues such as age, illness, infirmity, disability, and whether the difference in income would be unconscionably disparate.
In this case, the trial court found that the wife’s annual income was $41,000 and unlikely to increase because she had only a high school diploma and few skills. She couldn’t go back to her retail job because the hours would make it difficult to raise her child. Therefore the court also found her unlikely to become self-supporting.
The trial court also noted that before the separation the couple were middle-class and it considered that the marriage lasted over 21 years. Finally the court also looked at how the parties contributed to the marriage, both on a monetary and nonmonetary basis. The wife had responded to the husband’s job change by changing careers and taking a cut so she could take care of the minor children. The court also looked at the husband’s ability to provide alimony.
The appellate court reasoned that the only reference to the AAML guidelines was in connection with its analysis on the eleventh factor. The judge explained that he referred to the guidelines solely for informational purposes.
The husband argued that the trial court found that the wife’s deficit per month was only $1729, but awarded more because of the guidelines. The appellate court explained that the award did not have to be capped at the spouse’s reasonable needs for daily living. The court also explained that the lower court could decide it was fair to award the wife alimony higher than the bare minimum.
The trial court had also found that the wife had sacrificed during the marriage to allow the husband to go further in his career and obtain financial success. The appellate court ruled that if guidelines direct the court to a fair award without frustrating the statutory considerations, the trial court may look to them as an aid. The lower court in this case was affirmed.
Family law, including spousal support, can raise complex questions. If you and your spouse have decided to divorce, contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney for representation. Our office may be able to help you through this difficult time.
What is the Maryland “Bangs” Formula, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, October 24, 2013
Limited Divorce in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, September 17, 2013