Modifying Minnesota Spousal Support: Lessons from In re: Marriage of Madden

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The Minnesota Court of Appeals recently decided a case that could have implications for future cases involving spousal support in the state—not to mention existing spousal support cases. Let’s take a look at what In re: Marriage of Madden has to say about modifying Minnesota spousal support (alimony).

In case you don't feel like reading the 24-page opinion of the Minnesota Court of Appeals on the matter, a little background: The couple, Mark and Judy Madden, divorced in 2012. At the time of the divorce, the court found that Judy, who was not employed, was capable of earning some income, and that with a couple of years of additional education and training, she could earn even more. Even so, the court ordered Mark, a dentist, to pay her $10,000 in permanent alimony based on all of the relevant facts.

In 2017, Mark asked the trial court to terminate or reduce his spousal support obligation, as his income had decreased significantly due to his health problems. He asked the court to consider Judy's ability to become partially self-supporting, even though she continued to be unemployed. The trial court granted his request, reducing monthly spousal support to $4,785, and Judy appealed.

The Court of Appeals reversed the modification of spousal support. The modification had been granted, in part, based on the trial court attributing income to Judy in the modification hearing. However, even though the trial court found at the time of the divorce that Judy could earn income, it did not impose an obligation on her to do so.

The Court of Appeals said it was wrong for the district court that tried the case to attribute income to a spousal support recipient "based on the recipient’s lack of reasonable efforts to become partially self-supporting by increasing his or her earning capacity through additional education or vocational training, unless the district court previously had expressly imposed on the recipient an obligation to make such reasonable efforts."

The Court of Appeals observed that when temporary alimony is awarded, or permanent alimony with a gradual decrease in the amount of payment, there is an implication that the recipient will be taking steps toward becoming at least partly self-supporting.  In the Madden case, there was an award of permanent alimony with no step-down in payments and no conditions requiring the recipient to try to increase earning capacity. The Court of Appeals stated that such a scenario implies that the recipient will not become self-supporting, and has no obligation to try to increase earning capacity.

What the Madden Case Could Mean for You

The husband in Madden may have thought that the language in the divorce regarding his wife's potential earning capacity meant that she needed to exercise it. The Court of Appeals said that language alone was not enough. There needed to be a stated expectation, with the award of permanent spousal support, that the spousal support recipient would try to increase her earning potential and become partially or completely self-supporting.

When it comes to your divorce, and modifying Minnesota spousal support, the lesson is to make sure your divorce decree spells out what you think it does. In this case, had the divorce decree incorporated the trial court's findings that the wife was capable of partial self-support, and imposed a requirement that she take specific steps to become self-supporting, the outcome would have been different.

This highlights the importance of clear communication in a divorce case—not only between the parties and the court, but between parties and their attorneys. Work with an attorney you can talk to. Without understanding what you need from your divorce, your attorney won't be able to help you get it. If your expectations are unreasonable, your attorney can help you understand that and adjust your expectations accordingly. Equally important, an attorney who communicates well with you will probably also be a clear legal writer, ensuring that the details of your divorce decree are geared toward getting you the right outcome in your case.

If you have questions about modifying Minnesota spousal support, we invite you to contact Mundahl Law.