New Case Law: Spousal support and a well-drafted judgment

In Oregon, the court may award three different types of spousal support, depending on the facts of a case. The court can award transitional support to allow a spouse to obtain education or re-enter the work force. The court can award compensatory support to compensate one spouse for a contribution to the other’s career. The court can award maintenance support to maintain a standard of living, which can be temporary or indefinite in length.

Last week, the Oregon Court of Appeals filed an opinion where a 10 year spousal maintenance award was extended indefinitely. In Deboer and Deober, 212 Or App ____, ____ P3d ___ (2007), the court upheld a trial court that increased a husband’s spousal support obligation and extended the term indefinitely. After a 20 year marriage, wife was awarded 10 years of support at $600 per month. The judgment did not identify the type of support awarded, or the reason behind the support award. Wife had some health problems that existed prior to the divorce, and developed severe foot problems that affected her ability to work after the divorce. Wife filed to modify her spousal support in 2004.

In Oregon, a spousal support order can be modified, but only where the court finds there has been a “significant, unanticipated change in circumstances.” Basically, this means something big changed, and it wasn’t something the parties foresaw at the time of the initial action.

In this case, the court discussed that the worsening of wife’s foot condition caused a substantial deterioration of her health. Even though wife had health issues at the time of the divorce in 1995, the court held that wife had shown a substantial and unanticipated change in circumstances due to a deterioration in health, causing her to be unemployable. The court upheld the trial court’s ruling which increased wife’s spousal support to $1000 per month, and made it indefinite.

What does this mean to men and women in divorce court with spousal support issues? Your final judgment should clearly describe the reason why support is being awarded, or you risk the court filling in the gap later and extending or terminating the support. The result in Deboer might have been different if the judgment clearly indicated why Wife was receiving support.

One way to address (or prevent) a future modification motion is to enter into a settlement that restricts the parties’ ability to modify support. In McInnis and McInnis, 199 Or. App 223 (2005), the parties included specific language in the settlement making husband’s support obligation non-modifiable. Wife later filed to modify and extend her support payment. The trial court granted wife’s motion and extended her support payment. On appeal, the court reversed the trial court decision and held that parties could validly waive their rights to modify settlements, including spousal support. A McInnis style restriction on modification may be useful in cases where parties want to guarantee the length and amount of support.

About Sean Stephens

By Sean Stephens Google + Sean Stephens is divorce and family law lawyer, and a founding member of Stephens & Margolin LLP He was born in Eugene, Oregon and is a fourth generation Oregonian. Sean Stephens attended the University of Oregon, and graduated in with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, with a minor in English Literature. His psychology studies emphasized early childhood development. You can find more about Sean Stephens at Stephens & Margolin LLP Follow him
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