Unconscionable Disparity Between Spouse’s Incomes in Maryland

In a recent case, a Maryland wife sued for divorce in 2010. The husband countersued shortly thereafter, but the following year, he mother dismissed the original suit and brought a new one requesting alimony, child support and monetary award.

Both husband and wife were lawyers. The wife stopped working when she got pregnant with twins and there were complications. The wife did not return to work because the twins had health problems. The couple had a third child. The wife had been making about $120,000 per year when she stopped working.

By 2010, the husband was making more than $800,000 per year. This allowed the couple an affluent lifestyle, including a house worth $2 million, multiple cars, private school and dinners out. The amount of time the husband spent at work put a strain on the marriage and drove them to minor violence towards each other before they finally separated.

While they were separated the husband lived in a home that cost $5000 per month and the mother bought a $1.52 million home with her father. She also received income from her family’s real estate company.

Wife sued for absolute divorce on September 16, 2010, and Husband counter-sued for the same on November 12, 2010. The parties reached a custody agreement in April of 2011, giving them joint legal and shared residential custody of their youngest son, who was the only minor child at time (and who has since been emancipated by majority). Wife voluntarily dismissed her original suit on June 8, 2011, but she then brought a new complaint on November 3, 2011, demanding alimony, child support, monetary award, and other relief.

At trial, the mother testified to several serious health problems with expensive treatments needed. She also testified she needed a housekeeper and continued to go on vacations.

The trial court found that the wife couldn’t properly trace the source of all funds she had spent on the new house. Accordingly, the non-marital portion was only 55.7% and the rest was marital. Therefore part of the house was marital property.

The husband had argued among other things that the wife’s earning capacity was $30,000 and $40,000. The only evidence of the wife’s earning ability at all was the amount she made before the kids were born. The court found that her unearned annual income was $69,758 and that her household expenses of $15,812 per month were reasonable. The husband’s monthly income was $46,421.83 and he had more than $30,000 in surplus.

The court believed that the parties had a gross disparity in income. The wife was awarded indefinite alimony in an effort to reduce that disparity. When the parties filed motions to alter, the alimony award was increased and the court found the house was wholly nonmarital. The parties appealed.

The husband argued that the trial court had erred in not imputing income to the wife. “Imputed income” requires the court to find voluntary impoverishment. The court must consider a spouse’s physical condition, education, timing of employment change, relationship between the parties, efforts to find employment, past work history, and geographic region.

Voluntary impoverishment entails a finding that an impoverished person could support him or herself but elects not to do so. The husband argued that the wife could earn up to $40,000, but chose not to do so. However, he was pointing to education and past work experience, not her current situation as a 56-year-old who had been unemployed for the second half of her life and had major health problems.

The appellate court explained that the wife had met her burden of showing she couldn’t pay her ongoing expenses without additional income. She had not practiced law for twenty years and had health problems. The husband wasn’t able to present evidence she was still employable, though he argued she could earn $30,000-40,000. The court noted that the unconscionable disparity in the parties’ standards of living couldn’t be rectified with the wife earning $40,000. Self-sufficiency doesn’t bar an award of indefinite alimony if there is an unconscionable disparity the in the parties’ standards of living post-divorce. The appellate court explained it could not find an abuse of discretion in the trial court’s declining to impute earned income to the wife. Other arguments were put forward by both parties, but the wife’s alimony was affirmed.

If you are dealing with spousal support issues, contact an experienced Maryland family law attorney for representation. Our office may be able to help you through this difficult time.

More Blogs:

Dissipation of Marital Funds in Maryland, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, November 26, 2013

Neglect in Maryland Family Law Cases, Maryland Divorce Lawyer Blog, November 12, 2013


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