Disability Finding Not Grounds For Modification of Washington Spousal Maintenance

Following a Washington final divorce decree, a maintenance award, also known as spousal support, may only be modified if there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the decree.  The change has to be something that was not within the contemplation of the parties at the time of the divorce.  There may be a change in circumstances if the spouse receiving maintenance was expected to become self-supporting, but is unable to do so through no substantial fault of his or her own.  A trial court may choose a disproportionate property division instead of ordering maintenance.

A former wife recently sought modification of an order of maintenance shortly before the maintenance obligation was to expire.  The couple had been married 30 years before they separated.  The husband was a cardiologist, and the wife had worked as a registered nurse, but stopped working in 1989.  She had been treated for mental health issues since 1996.

The husband was ordered to pay maintenance of $4,600 a month for five years, starting in August 2010, and child support of $1,400 a month until the youngest child graduated high school.   The monthly maintenance payment was to increase to $5,750 per month when the oldest child graduated.

The court had assigned no value to the family residence, which had been destroyed in a fire, nor in real estate owned in Alaska.  The husband allowed the family residence to be foreclosed and sold the Alaska property at a $150,000 capital loss.  He stated the wife had received $1,533,000 and he received $1,018,900 in the property division.

The wife filed for Social Security disability benefits a few days after the divorce decree was entered. She was awarded $924 per month in benefits, with the order stating she had “not engaged in substantial gainful activity since June 1, 1996.”

The wife petitioned for modification shortly before the final maintenance payment was due.  She alleged that her finding of disability and the small amount she received each month constituted a substantial change of circumstances since the decree was entered.

The husband opposed the petition.  He argued that he was nearing retirement and that it had taken him a long time to recover from the divorce financially.  He argued that the wife’s net worth was higher than his.  He pointed out that the wife had received more than $500,000 more than he had in property distribution, that he had paid over $345,000 in maintenance, and he had covered the children’s post-secondary education expenses.

The wife argued that she believed she could return to nursing at the time of the divorce.  She also argued they had “agreed to reserve maintenance” due to her mental health issues.  She alleged the husband was being dishonest about his own financial situation.

At the hearing, the commissioner concluded there was not a “new or different set of circumstances. The commissioner noted that the wife was aware of the “situation with her mental health” at the time of the divorce.  The commissioner also found that, without a substantial change in circumstances, the husband’s remarriage and increase in assets was not relevant.

The wife appealed, arguing her inability to work was a substantial change in circumstances.   The appeals court found that the record showed both the husband and wife were “completely aware” of the wife’s mental health issues and that her condition had previously been debilitating.  The appeals court also found that the wife’s argument that she expected to go back to work was not in line with her filing for disability benefits just days after the divorce decree or with her allegation that her disability started on June 1, 1996.

The wife also argued that the parties had agreed “to reserve maintenance.” The husband denied that maintenance was reserved.  The wife pointed to a handwritten note on the decree, but the court found it could not be reasonably read as reserving maintenance.  Additionally, the appeals court noted the trial court would have had no reason to award the wife more in the property distribution if the husband was going to pay maintenance as long as necessary to maintain the wife’s standard of living.

The appeals court found no abuse of discretion and affirmed the commissioner’s order.

As this case shows, a court will not modify a maintenance obligation for circumstances that are known at the time of the divorce.  If you are facing a divorce or seeking a modification, an experienced Washington divorce attorney can work with you to determine what facts and circumstances support your claim.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC at (206) 622-6562 to schedule a consultation.