Articles Posted in Spousal Maintenance

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In a recent Wisconsin family law appellate decision, a husband appealed a divorce judgment on the grounds that he was not awarded enough maintenance at the time he and his wife divorced. He also appealed an order that came post-judgment and terminated the maintenance.

The couple married in 1999 and got divorced in 2016. Later in their marriage, they got income from a business founded by the wife in 2008. The income varied from year to year, peaking at $656,393 in 2012 and dropping in 2014 and 2015. The husband claimed he’d worked there full time, but after his wife filed for divorce, she stopped him from working there.

When the couple divorced in 2016, the court found the wife’s income had dropped and that the husband was able to earn $85,000. He was awarded limited-term maintenance in the amount of $4,000 each month for four years. A year after the couple divorced, the wife asked to reduce this maintenance on the basis that her business income had gone down more and would keep decreasing. The court found there was a substantial change in circumstances to form a basis for ending maintenance payments.

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Wisconsin law and public policy give significant preference to marriage and marital families. The structures of family law and divorce revolve around the idea that a couple who love each other will get married, have children in wedlock, and later get divorced if needed.

Yet many couples, especially in recent years, have chosen to cohabitate, merge finances, and raise families together without ever officially marrying. When these couples break up, they don’t have the ability to utilize the divorce system in order to divide their property equally and fairly, and, as a result, one spouse sometimes gets the short end of the stick.

As a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court case makes clear, one remedy for this situation that the courts have adopted is to allow former partners in a relationship to seek unjust enrichment claims against the other when the assets of a relationship are not evenly divided.

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During the process of getting a divorce, most couples will consider whether either spouse should be entitled to receive spousal maintenance. Spousal maintenance is a payment that one spouse gives to the other in order for the spouse receiving the payment to keep up with the standard of living to which they are accustomed. Whether Wisconsin spousal maintenance should be awarded is based on the circumstances of the spouses at the time of the divorce, including the needs of the parties, the income of the parties, and the standard of living during the divorce.

When spousal maintenance is awarded, it is a finalized and defined amount of money that must be paid every month. However, spousal maintenance can be changed when a substantial change of circumstances occurs. Things like a medical condition, a special needs child, a job loss, or a move can all represent a substantial change of circumstances. A recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals looks at whether a voluntary job change can also be a change of circumstances justifying a modification of spousal maintenance.

In Marriage of Purdy, Rande and Lisa Purdy divorced after 34 years of marriage. At the time of the divorce, Rande was working as a director of sales for a family liquor company and earning twice what Lisa was earning as a nurse at the Mayo Clinic. As a result of the disparity of their income, the court awarded Lisa $1,000 a month in spousal maintenance.

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Spousal maintenance is typically awarded in a divorce so that one spouse can continue to live the life that they were accustomed to living before the divorce. Often in these situations, one spouse is making significantly more than the other, or one has taken time off from his or her career to raise children and is no longer in the workforce. In order to ensure that that parent is not left stranded after a divorce and effectively punished for sacrificing career obligations for family obligations, the court requires that the working spouse give some amount of money, on a monthly basis, to the spouse who was not working or was working a lower-paying job. Spousal maintenance is not necessarily a permanent payment, and it can change over time or with a change in circumstances. Sometimes it may only be awarded until the spouse who is receiving the maintenance has time to get back on his or her feet. A recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals looks at when a change in circumstances can justify spousal maintenance payments being reduced or eliminated altogether.

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The modification of spousal maintenance is an issue that arises frequently after a divorce. In some cases, a party may not be satisfied with the original maintenance award issued by the court and may try to have it changed after the requisite period of time has passed. In other instances, circumstances may change for one or both parties, causing a party to file for the modification of an award. Although many modifications are warranted, courts do not take such requests lightly and will require parties to prove that there is a significant basis for changing a maintenance award. A recent case before the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin looks at both acceptable and unacceptable bases for modification.

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When a couple divorces and reaches an agreement on issues such as child support and spousal maintenance, the terms of that agreement are considered final. They can only be changed through a petition to the court arguing that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that warrants a change in financial arrangements. What constitutes a substantial change in circumstances is largely up to the discretion of the court considering the case, and many different factors may be considered. A recent Wisconsin case looks at whether changes in income by one or both parties can justify a change in child support amounts.

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When dealing with a divorce in Wisconsin, courts must give careful consideration to the division of existing property, assets, and debts that a couple may have, as well as how to divide future obligations and income, if necessary. While Wisconsin courts typically start from the presumption that marital property should be divided equally between two spouses, such arrangements can be modified when it would be in the interest of the courts and the couple to do so. A recent Wisconsin Court of Appeals case considered and applied a creative approach for resolving spousal maintenance issues between a couple by instead offering one spouse an additional lump sum property award.

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