Alimony or spousal support is a cash payment directed to a spouse which is not part of a property settlement agreement for child support. Some spouses assume that this is a normal part of the divorce case and that they are entitled to a percentage of the other spouse’s future income.
Although a Court may issue temporary orders while the case is pending to provide direct or indirect payments to a spouse, such as the payment of a car payment or house payment which benefits the other spouse, the court’s ability to award spousal support after the parties are divorced is quite limited.
Alimony or spousal maintenance is governed by statute in Indiana. Indiana code 31-15-7-1 states that a court may award maintenance in divorces or legal separation decrees, but must make specific findings. The burden of proof is on the person seeking spousal support. If you are interested in seeking or challenging spousal support, we invite you to call our office to schedule a consultation with an experienced Indiana spousal support attorney. At Mattox & Wilson, we can listen to the facts of your case and explain your legal options for pursuing or opposing spousal support.
There are essentially three types of spousal support in Indiana.
Indiana Courts are required to make specific findings concerning spousal support. Even if the statutory criteria are met, the court still has the discretion to deny a request for spousal alimony. In one case, the court specifically found that a spouse had physical limitations and received disability payments but was not entitled to spousal maintenance because she also had a college degree, had done some limited work, and that her physical limitations would not entirely preclude sedentary work. Generally, the appeals court will not reverse the trial court’s decision on these issues because the Court of Appeals will give great weight to the court’s factual findings.
A court may not circumvent these rules by calling a payment to a spouse something else. In one case, the court ordered the husband to pay the wife’s COBRA medical insurance benefits after the decree. The court of appeals found that this amounted to spousal support and reversed the trial court because the trial court made no findings to support spousal support, such as a finding that the spouse was disabled.
If an Indiana court orders spousal support, the order may always be modified. In one case our firm had, the wife did not have a high school degree. The court awarded spousal support so that she could get her GED but terminated the order after finding that she had not obtained her GED after 12 months. The court felt that 12 months was more than reasonable for her to do this.
In another case, the spouse alleged some fairly significant medical conditions which led the court to order spousal support, but later discovery indicated that the conditions had substantially improved and that the spouse continued to defend her doctor’s advice which impacted her ability to seek employment. As a result, the court phased out the spousal support.
In some cases, the parties agree to provide spousal support as part of an overall agreement. Unlike court-ordered spousal support, if the agreement does not provide a specific termination date, the court generally cannot modify the parties’ agreement.
In a case decided over 20 years ago, the Indiana Supreme Court refused to modify a provision that required the husband to pay $400 per week to the wife until she died, remarried, or reached 65 years of age. The husband stopped making the payments shortly after the entry of the agreement and claimed that he had a material change in his finances that made it impossible for him to make the payments. The Supreme Court held that the divorce court had no authority to grant the petition to modify a maintenance obligation that the parties agreed to as part of their divorce settlement. The court left open one avenue for relief, however. The Supreme Court found that the trial court could modify the spousal support if it was based upon one of the three types of support which the trial court could have ordered if the parties had not agreed to that provision.
Later cases have recognized that Indiana courts have significant discretion in modifying these provisions if the spousal support could have been awarded by the court. As an example, in a later case, the parties agreed that the wife was to receive $1500 per month for two years. The agreement noted that these payments were spousal maintenance based upon the wife’s need to find additional training to reenter the workforce.
After the entry of the divorce, the spouse returned to employment and the husband’s income went down. The husband stopped making the payments as ordered and both parties sought relief from the court. The court denied the husband’s petition to modify the spousal support but reduced the payment to $200 per paycheck. The court found that because the settlement agreement was based upon a ground which the court could have ordered spousal support, the court also had the authority to modify the agreement with respect to spousal support.
A very similar case involved payments for rehabilitation maintenance which were supposed to last for three years. During the first 24 months of the agreement, the spouse worked various jobs, attended a few classes, but made no substantial effort to actually get a degree. The court terminated the husband’s maintenance obligations so that he only had to pay for 24 months because of the wife’s failure to obtain her degree and make other efforts.