I. Laws on the Initial Establishment of Spousal Maintenance
A trial court has wide discretion in determining spousal maintenance and its determination is final unless the court abused its discretion. The trial court’s determination is examined in light of the factors set forth in Minn. Stat. § 518.552. See Haasken v. Haasken, 396 N.W.2d 253, 259 (Minn.Ct.App.1986) (citations omitted).
Minn. Stat. § 518.552 permits the trial court in its discretion to order either temporary or permanent maintenance after considering all relevant factors including those enumerated in the statute, which are:
(a) the financial resources of the party seeking maintenance, including marital property apportioned to the party, and the party’s ability to meet needs independently, including the extent to which a provision for support of a child living with the party includes a sum for that party as custodian;
(b) the time necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party seeking maintenance to find appropriate employment, and the probability, given the party’s age and skills, of completing education or training and becoming fully or partially self-supporting;
(c) the standard of living established during the marriage;
(d) the duration of the marriage and, in the case of a homemaker, the length of absence from employment and the extent to which any education, skills, or experience have become outmoded and earning capacity has become permanently diminished;
(e) the loss of earnings, seniority, retirement benefits, and other employment opportunities forgone by the spouse seeking spousal maintenance;
(f) the age, and the physical and emotional condition of the spouse seeking maintenance;
(g) the ability of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought to meet needs while meeting those of the spouse seeking maintenance; and
(h) the contribution of each party in the acquisition, preservation, depreciation, or appreciation in the amount or value of the marital property, as well as the contribution of a spouse as a homemaker or in furtherance of the other party’s employment or business. Minn. Stat. § 518.552, Subd. 2 (2014).
No single factor is dispositive in reviewing a maintenance award. See Elwell v. Elwell, 372 N.W.2d 67, 69 (Minn. Ct. App. 1985).
Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subd. 2(b) creates an affirmative obligation on the part of the spouse seeking maintenance to seek appropriate employment. See Eckholm v. Eckholm, 368 N.W.2d 386 (Minn. Ct. App.1985).
Pursuant to the statutory factors outlined in Minn. Stat. § 518.552, the trial court must balance the financial needs of the spouse seeking maintenance and his or her ability to meet those needs against the financial condition of the spouse providing the maintenance. Particular attention is given to periods of training or education. Krick v. Krick, 349 N.W.2d 350, 352 (Minn. Ct. App. 1984), citing Erlandson v. Erlandson, 318 N.W.2d 36 (Minn. 1982).
Some Minnesota Supreme Court decisions have limited awards of permanent maintenance to exceptional cases where there is little likelihood of a spouse attaining self-sufficiency. McClelland v. McClelland, 359 N.W.2d 7 (Minn. 1984); Abuzzahab v. Abuzzahab, 359 N.W.2d 12 (Minn. 1984).
A spouse’s ability to work can be assessed by an examination of the spouse’s current work and earnings, and/or a vocational assessment of the spouse’s employment skills and the job opportunities available for those skills.
The current work and earnings of a spouse will present a satisfactory assessment of earnings, unless it is argued that the spouse is underemployed.
If a spouse is unemployed or underemployed, the first issue to be addressed is whether a vocational assessment will produce any worthwhile information.
Unless a spouse is disabled, there is a presumption that the spouse has some earning capacity. Going above minimum earning capacity or the spouse’s actual earnings requires a vocational assessment, or the presentation of other credible evidence, such as recent job offers. Going below this standard requires a vocational assessment, medical testimony on a spouse’s disability, or the presentation of other credible evidence. Limited ability could also be argued, based on a child who requires a parent’s in-home care.
In assessing one’s ability to be employed, training and education, as well as job opportunities, must be examined. An absence of job opportunities sufficient to provide a livable income will affect the court’s determination. Thedens v. Thedens, 400 N.W.2d 821 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987); Frederiksen v. Frederiksen, 368 N.W.2d 769 (Minn. Ct. App. 1985); McGowan v. McGowan, 363 N.W.2d 359 (Minn. Ct. App. 1985).
An older dependent spouse in a long-term marriage who never worked outside the home, or who was not working outside the home around the time of separation, may not be required to find employment. Nardini v. Nardini, 414 N.W.2d 184 (Minn. 1987).
A court may impute an income to the spouse seeking maintenance if the spouse seeking maintenance is under-employed for the purpose of obtaining maintenance. Carrick v. Carrick, 560 N.W.2d 407, 410 (Minn. Ct. App. 1997).
However, where the spouse in a long-term marriage, who is seeking maintenance, has worked in a specific job that was not obtained for the purpose of positioning herself for maintenance, the court cannot impute additional hours or a higher income simply because the spouse seeking maintenance may have other opportunities available to her. Carrick v. Carrick, 560 N.W.2d 407, 410 (Minn. Ct. App. 1997). The Minnesota Court of Appeals, citing the case of Schallinger v. Schallinger, 699 N.W.2d 15, 17 (Minn. Ct. App. 2005), review denied (Minn. Sept. 28, 2005), held that the trial court was not imputing income to a party where the court finds that a party is capable of full-time employment because this is essentially a finding that a party can meet her needs independently, one of the statutory factors in addressing a request for maintenance. The court held that because the finding is not an imputation of income it needs no finding of “bad faith” to accompany it. Rauenhorst v. Rauenhorst, 724 N.W.2d 541, 546 (Minn. Ct. App. 2006).
Assistance for temporary periods to allow adjustment by, rehabilitation for, or education of a spouse may be appropriate. Pekarek v. Pekarek, 362 N.W.2d 394 (Minn. Ct. App. 1985), appeal after remand 380 N.W.2d 161 (1986); Napier v. Napier, 374 N.W.2d 512 (Minn. Ct. App. 1985); Maher v. Maher, 393 N.W.2d 190 (Minn. Ct. App. 1986).
A spouse is not required to change her vocation for a more lucrative position before she is entitled to maintenance. Coffel v. Coffel, 400 N.W.2d 371 (Minn. Ct. App. 1987)
II. Laws on the Modification of an Award of Spousal Maintenance
Absent language in the judgment and decree divesting the district court of jurisdiction, the court retains the authority to determine whether changed circumstances warrant modification. Kemp v. Kemp, 608 N.W.2d 916, 921 (Minn. Ct. App. 2000).
When a stipulation fixing the respective rights and obligations of the parties is central to the original judgment and decree, the district court considering the spousal maintenance modification “should view [the original judgment and decree] as an important element because it represents the parties’ voluntary acquiescence in an equitable settlement.” Claybaugh v. Claybaugh, 312 N.W.2d 447, 449 (Minn. 1981). The provisions of the stipulation establish the “baseline circumstances against which claims of substantial change are evaluated.” Hecker v. Hecker, 568 N.W.2d 705, 709 (Minn. 1997).
A district court may modify a spousal maintenance award if the spouse seeking the modification establishes that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the last order regarding maintenance. Minn. Stat. § 518A.39, subd. 2(a) (2014).
To establish that there has been a substantial change in circumstances, the spouse seeking the modification must show that one spouse has had a significant increase or decrease in gross income or a significant increase or decrease in need, and must further demonstrate that the change renders the current maintenance award “unreasonable and unfair.” Hecker v. Hecker, 568 N.W.2d 705, 709 (Minn. 1997). The terms “unreasonable and unfair” are “strong terms which place upon the claimant a burden of proof more than cursory.” Giencke v. Haglund, 364 N.W.2d 433, 436 (Minn. Ct. App. 1985).
Although the district court is vested with the broad discretion to determine whether modification is appropriate, the Minnesota Supreme Court has urged courts to “exercise that discretion carefully and only reluctantly alter the terms of a stipulation governing maintenance.” Sieber v. Sieber, 258 N.W.2d 754 (Minn. 1977). The existence of a stipulation, however, does not prevent a subsequent modification if the parties’ circumstances have materially changed. Sand v. Sand, 379 N.W.2d 119, 125 (Minn. Ct. App. 1985), review denied (Minn. Jan. 31, 1986).
Where an obligor’s income has decreased substantially, Minnesota Courts have typically found grounds for a reduction or elimination of the obligor’s spousal maintenance obligation. See LeFebvre v. LeFebvre, 232 N.W.2d 786 (Minn. 1975); see also Fulmer v. Fulmer, 594 N.W.2d 210 (Minn. Ct. App. 1999).
A substantial increase or decrease in the gross income of an obligor or obligee, or a substantial increase or decrease in the needs of an obligor or obligee, are sufficient to show changed circumstances. Dougherty v. Dougherty, 443 N.W.2d 193, 194 (Minn.App.1989).
A substantial change in circumstances is presumed if the gross income of the obligee or obligor has decreased by at least 20 percent, provided that such change is not the fault or choice of either party. Minn. Stat. § 518A.39, subd. 2(b)(5) (2014). Once the district court determines that there has been a substantial change in circumstances warranting a modification, as the district court did here, it must apply the factors under Minnesota Statutes section 518.552 to determine the amount of the maintenance award. Minn. Stat. § 518A.39, subd. 2(d) (2014).
The district court can also reopen a final order with respect to an award of spousal maintenance for the following reasons:
1. Mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;
2. Newly discovered evidence which by due diligence could not have been discovered in time to move for a new trial under the Rules of Civil Procedure, rule 59.03;
3. Fraud, whether denominated intrinsic or extrinsic, misrepresentation, or other misconduct of an adverse party;
4. The judgment and decree or order is void; or
5. The judgment has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or a prior judgment and decree or order upon which it is based has been reversed or otherwise vacated, or it is no longer equitable that the judgment and decree or order should have prospective application.
Minn. Stat. § 518.145, Subd. 2 (2014). Section 518.145 applies to awards of spousal maintenance under Minn. Stat. § 518.552, Subd. 4 (2014).