A party seeking modification of spousal maintenance (or changing alimony) has the burden to show a substantial change of circumstances, since the time maintenance award was set, and that these changes render the award unreasonable or unfair. See Hecker v. Hecker, 568 N.W.2d 705, 709 (Minn. 1997). The terms of a maintenance award may be modified upon a showing that there has been a substantial increase in the gross income of a maintenance recipient. See Minn. Stat. § 518A.39 subd 2(a)(1). But what happens when the party receiving maintenance payments chooses not to work to his or her earning ability?
Imputing Income to the Recipient of Spousal Maintenance
Even in cases where a recipient or payor of a maintenance award has no income, potential income can and should be attributed to a party. Recent case law suggests that a permanent maintenance recipient should be required to contribute to living expenses matching their earning capacity. Passolt v. Passolt, 804 N.W.2d 18, 25 (Minn. Ct. App. 2011). In cases where a spouse fails to provide for his or her reasonable needs, a court is not prohibited from attributing to the recipient, the income which could have been produced by reasonable effort. See Hecker 568 N.W.2d at 710. By attributing this income, the Court does not have to find bad faith. Instead the Court only needs to consider the relevant factors for an award of maintenance; which includes one’s ability to meet his or her needs independently. See Minn. Stat. § 518.552. In considering an award of spousal maintenance, a Minnesota Court should consider the ability of a maintenance recipient to meet their needs independently. The Court attributes to the recipient, the income that could be produced with reasonable effort. If that is the case, then a Court may have the ability to consider income that a maintenance recipient is choosing not to earn, and may even consider modifying a maintenance award based on that potential income.
Increased Income by Recipient
Additionally, the issue may come up of your ex-spouse getting a new job that pays them more money than originally indicated in the finalized divorce decree. If the spousal maintenance obligation is stated in a divorce decree, it will likely have a statement of the obligor’s income and expenses and of the recipient’s income and expenses. If everything has remained the same and the recipient of spousal maintenance is now earning significantly more as compared to at the time of the divorce decree, the Court has the authority to reduce or eliminate spousal maintenance payments. One of the legal grounds to ask the Judge to reduce spousal maintenance payments is in the event of significantly increased or decreased earnings. Whether the actual increase rises to a level where it would be appropriate to reduce spousal maintenance will depend on each case. For example, if the person receiving spousal maintenance was earning $20,000 per year at the time of the divorce Decree but is now earning $60,000 per year, and the expenses have remained largely consistent, and there are no other extenuating circumstances, a Motion to Reduce Spousal Maintenance would likely be successful based on an increase of the recipient’s income.
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