Step-Downs Of Spousal Support

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Madhu and Sameer got married.  Madhu and Sameer got divorced.  As part of the divorce settlement the judgment provided for monthly support of $2,650 commencing on June 1, 2007, which was annually stepped-down through June 1, 2010.  For the period of June 1, 2009 through May 31, 2010, Sameer was required to pay Madhu monthly spousal support of $1,650 per month.  The judgment also provided that “[o]n June 1, 2010, spousal support will be reduced to zero, unless, before that date, [Madhu] files a motion to have spousal support continued and shows good cause as to why the Court should order spousal support to be continued.”

The Judgment also stated, and this is critical, “[C]ommencing June 1, 2007, the Parties shall each pay one-half of all:  (a) reasonable child care expenses incurred to permit a Party to work; (b) only through October 30, 2007, reasonable child care expenses incurred to permit [appellant Madhu] to obtain her MSW degree . . . .”

On March 24, 2010 Madhu did file a motion to have spousal support continue, and at a higher amount.  Naturally Sameer opposed the request.

The Court writes:

An order providing for contingent termination of spousal support on a specific date unless, before that time, the supported spouse  brings a motion to modify for good cause is denominated a Richmond order after the decision of In re Marriage of Richmond, supra, 105 Cal.App.3d 352 (“Richmond“). . .

“A Richmond order is normally issued with the expectation that if the supported spouse exercises reasonable diligence, he or she will have become self-supporting by the date set for support payments to end.”  (In re Marriage of Berland (1989) 215 Cal.App.3d 1257, 1260.)  “The effect of a ‘Richmond’ order is to tell each spouse that the supported spouse has a specified period of time to become self-supporting, after which the obligation of the supporting spouse will cease. . . . A ‘Richmond’ order psychologically prepares the supported spouse for the time when he or she must be self-supporting.  It also places the burden of showing good cause for a change in the order upon the one who is most able to exercise the control necessary to meet the expectations the trial judge had in making the order.”  (In re Marriage of Prietsch & Calhoun (1987) 190 Cal.App.3d 645, 665-666.). . . .

The clear implication of the judgment was that, absent unforeseen circumstances, Madhu was expected to complete her MSW degree and be able to be fully self-supporting by June 1, 2010.  The judgment provided for the parties to equally share the cost of additional child support for (1) child care expenses to permit a party to work and (2) child care expenses to permit appellant Madhu to obtain her MSW Degree “only through October 30, 2007.”  Spousal support commenced on June 1, 2007 but was annually stepped-down and reached zero on June 1, 2010 unless Madhu filed “a motion to have spousal support continued and shows good cause as to why the Court should order spousal support to be continued” by that date. . . .

“A motion for modification of spousal support may only be granted if there has been a material change of circumstances since the last order.  (In re Marriage of Kuppinger (1975) 48 Cal.App.3d 628 . . . .)  Otherwise, dissolution cases would have no finality and unhappy former spouses could bring repeated actions for modification with no burden of showing a justification to change the order.  Litigants ‘ “are entitled to attempt, with some degree of certainty, to reorder their finances and life style [sic] in reliance upon the finality of the decree.” ‘  [Citation.]  Absent a change of circumstances, a motion for modification is nothing more than an impermissible collateral attack on a prior final order.  [Citation.]”  (In re Marriage of Smith (1990) 225 Cal.App.3d 469, 480.). . . .

“[I]n determining what constitutes a change in circumstances the trial court is bound to give effect to the intent and reasonable expectations of the parties as expressed in the agreement.  [Citations.]”  (In re Marriage of Aninger, supra, 220 Cal.App.3d at p. 238; see In re Marriage of Dietz, supra, 176 Cal.App.4th at p. 399.)  “[T]he trial court’s discretion to modify the spousal support order is constrained by the terms of the marital settlement agreement.  The court may not simply reevaluate the spousal support award.”  (In re Marriage of Aninger, supra, 220 Cal.App.3d at p. 238.)

Nothing in the parties’ stipulation, or the judgment entered pursuant to the stipulation, suggested that the parties expected spousal support to facilitate a voluntary decision by Madhu to pursue higher education beyond a MSW degree, if she was able to be self-supporting based on her education and skills in the existing job market.  Madhu did not show that despite her reasonable efforts she was unable to support herself.  (Cf. In re Marriage of Aninger, supra, 220 Cal.App.3d at p. 241 [“[supported spouse] neither alleged nor proved any change in circumstances affecting her ability to become self-supporting”].)  It was not an abuse of discretion to conclude that the evidence was insufficient to show a material change of circumstances. . . .

By the language of the stipulated judgment it was presumed Madhu would have her graduate degree and be self-supporting by 2010.  That presumption was a material component of the negotiated spousal support.  Her failure to finish her degree was not a change of circumstances allowing the court to modify spousal support and stop the termination of the payments on the fixed date.  Sameer does not have to continue paying spousal support because Madhu did not timely complete the academic and career training that everyone — including the court — was expecting her to complete by 2010.

Click here to read the Khera opinion.

By John Harding

Please be sure to visit www.hardinglaw.com, the website for the law firm of Harding & Associates, for more information on California family law.

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