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Unrealized Expectations of Becoming Self-Sufficient May Constitute a “Change of Circumstances”

After dissolution of a 32-year marriage, wife received a spousal support award of $2,500 per month for a period of six years. Prior to the expiration of the six-year period, wife’s divorce attorney brought a motion to modify the spousal support order because her income was insufficient to pay her living expenses. The divorce court denied wife’s divorce lawyer’s motion, and the Court of Appeal reversed the divorce court’s decision.

During the marriage, wife did not hold independent employment and husband was an executive of Raytheon. Husband drew $100,000 from his annual salary. Upon divorce the parties stipulated judgment stated that wife was entitled to earn up to $10,000 per year before her earnings could become the basis for reducing the spousal support. Thereafter spousal support would be reduced $1 for every $1 earned in excess of the $10,000 annual amount wife was entitled to earn. Further the stipulation explicitly acknowledged the court’s ability to modify the spousal support order.

Wife’s divorce attorney submitted an income and expense declaration showing that her monthly expenses were $3,017 and that she had a monthly disposable income of $1,198. The divorce court had denied wife’s divorce attorney’s motion to modify support on the basis that there was no evidence that she was unable to support herself. Wife’s divorce lawyer filed a timely appeal. The Court of Appeal decided that the divorce court had abused its discretion in making that determination. The Court of Appeal explained that state policy disfavors terminating spousal support on a specific future date.

The court explained that for wife to receive a continuation of support she has the burden of showing a “change in circumstances.” However, if the supported spouse has made reasonable efforts to become self-supporting, a showing of “unrealized expectations” may be sufficient to establish a change in circumstances. A supported spouse’s need is one of the essential elements in determining spousal support. Here, the court found that the wife had both demonstrated a need and the husband had the financial capability to continue paying spousal support. Thus, the Court of Appeal agreed with wife’s divorce lawyer and found that the divorce court erred by denying wife’s motion to modify spousal support.

In re Marriage of Beust (1994) 23 Cal.App. 4th 24