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.
In In re The Marriage of Renee E. Hoefler v. Robert A. Doherty, several changes were made to the parties’ divorce order in the years preceding their divorce. R.H. and R.D. originally divorced in 1996. At the time of the divorce, R.D. was ordered to pay R.H. $950 a month in spousal maintenance over a period of five years. In 2002, R.H. presented evidence that she had become disabled and could not support herself. At that time, R.D.’s payments to R.H. were extended indefinitely. Then, in 2006, R.D. began to experience cardiac health issues that affected his ability to work. He applied for a modification of his maintenance payments, and the amount was reduced to $750 by the court. R.H. appealed this change, but it was upheld.
In 2014, R.H. made a second petition for modification of maintenance. She requested an increase in payments based on her continued disability and the argument that the lowered amount of $750 per month had caused her significant financial hardship. She also argued that R.D. had been dishonest about his health conditions during his 2006 modification request and exaggerated the impact of his health issues on his ability to work. The divorce court held a hearing to consider R.H.’s petition and an effort by R.D. to dismiss the petition. At the end of the hearing, it determined that R.H. had not submitted evidence of substantial changes warranting a modification and denied her petition. R.H. appealed.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals reconsidered the bases for R.H.’s request for modification but found them lacking. First, it turned to R.H.’s arguments that R.D. mischaracterized his health conditions in 2006. The court of appeals agreed with the lower court that this issue was fully litigated when the 2006 request for modification was considered, and R.H.’s arguments in her 2014 request for modification were simply an effort to re-litigate this order. Turning to R.H.’s arguments based on her ongoing disability and financial hardship, the court noted that these were two issues of which the court had long been aware. Thus, it held that they did not warrant a “substantial change in circumstances” that would warrant awarding a change in maintenance.
The Court of Appeals held that the record showed that R.H. had chosen to live in a house that she could not really afford while disabled, which greatly contributed to her “financial hardship.” To the extent that she wanted to continue to live in that house, the court held that R.H. was entitled to do that, but she could not use such discretionary decisions as a basis for requiring R.D. to pay more money in maintenance. The Court of Appeals noted that an ex-spouse paying maintenance should not be required to support the financially irresponsible decisions of another spouse. Moreover, the court noted that the change from five years of maintenance to indefinite maintenance was made directly in response to R.H.’s disability, and her continued disability did not warrant a change in that arrangement.
Changes in spousal maintenance are not taken lightly by courts, and an ex-spouse who is requesting a change must make sure to have his or her affairs and arguments in order before proceeding with such a request. Repeated unsubstantiated requests will not be viewed lightly by a court. If you are hoping to modify the spousal maintenance that you receive in Wisconsin or are contesting a maintenance request, you should discuss your rights and options with an experienced Milwaukee alimony attorney as soon as possible. To speak with a knowledgeable divorce lawyer today, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.