Earning Capacity and Changes in Circumstances in California Spousal Support Cases – In re Marriage of Penprase

California courts usually won’t change a spousal support award unless the person who wants to alter the award shows that there’s been a sufficiently significant change in circumstances to warrant the modification. On the other hand, state spousal support law carries with it a strong preference that a person receiving support make reasonable efforts to become self-sufficient. As the state’s Sixth District Court of appeals recently explained, a person looking to reduce or terminate support on the grounds that the recipient hasn’t made such efforts bears the burden of proving that the recipient isn’t living up to his or her earning capacity.

Husband and Wife separated in 2001, following roughly 19 years of marriage. They divorced and entered into a marital settlement agreement a year later, through which the couple decided how they would divide their various property and assets. They also agreed that Husband would pay Wife nearly $2,700 per month in spousal support. Those payments were set to continue until either spouse died, Wife remarried, the couple agreed otherwise, or a court ruled that the payments should be modified or terminated. The agreement further stated that each spouse should strive to become self-supporting and that a court could consider that responsibility in altering the payment arrangement at any time.

Husband went back to court in 2013, asking a judge to either reduce or terminate the spousal support payments. He alleged that Wife had turned down a higher paying management position at Macy’s to stay in her sales associate role with the company. Husband also noted that the couple had been married for less than 20 years, and he had already paid support for a decade. He also argued that the spouses had lived above their means during the marriage, and he said the court shouldn’t rely on their standard of living at that time to set the support award.

In response, Wife argued that she turned down the executive job because a complicated pay structure could have left her making less money than in her current position. She also said she’d invested some of the money from the settlement into a business venture that failed. The trial court sided with Wife, ruling that Husband did not establish that there had been a substantial change in circumstances to justify a change in the support arrangement.

Affirming the decision on appeal, the Sixth District said the trial court didn’t abuse its discretion in declining to reduce or terminate the spousal support award. Since Husband didn’t present any evidence showing that Wife would have made more money – or how much more money she would have made – had she taken the management job, the Court said there was no proof that she was refusing to become self-sufficient. “In short, [Husband’s] showing regarding [Wife]’s earning capacity was no more than speculation,” the Court said. “Accordingly, on this record there is no substantial evidence that [Wife] has failed to make a reasonable good faith effort to become self-supporting by obtaining employment commensurate with her earning capacity.”

If you’re considering a divorce in California or facing spousal support issues after a divorce, spousal support may be an important issue. With offices throughout the Bay Area, divorce lawyer Lorna Jaynes provides innovative legal tools to resolve family law disputes without the bitterness and acrimony engendered by the adversarial process.

Related blog posts:

Untangling Shared Business Interests in California Divorce Cases – In re Marriage of Greaux and Mermin

The Role of Retirement Benefits in California Divorce Cases – In re Marriage of Green

Why Must I File a Lawsuit to Obtain a Divorce in California


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