Update (November 15, 2011): By order filed today, the Minnesota Supreme Court denied review in the Passolt case.
Update (September 22, 2011): A petition for review was filed today in the Passolt case. We’ll see whether the Minnesota Supreme Court decides to weigh in.
Original Post (August 25, 2011): Spousal maintenance is often an issue of contention in divorces, particularly where one party worked less than full-time during the marriage. In such a situation, the court must weigh numerous factors in deciding how much maintenance to award and for how long to award it.
One issue that has caused confusion is the purported conflict between the statutory requirement that the court consider the ability of the party receiving maintenance to be self-supporting and the prohibition on imputing income to that party absent a finding of bad faith. A new opinion from the court of appeals provides a bit of clarity. (In the interest of full disclosure, I was one of the attorneys for the appellant in this case).
Jeff and Lisa Passolt dissolved their marriage in May 2010, after stipulating to most issues. Trial was held regarding spousal maintenance and various property-division questions. Although Lisa had been employed as a teacher early in the marriage, she stopped working full-time after the couple’s first child was born in 1985. During the trial, various vocational experts testified that she would need to obtain 125 hours of additional training, but could be relicensed in a year and would be employable as a special-education teacher earning approximately $37,000 per year. Lisa indicated that she did not wish to return to work full-time, but planned to continue volunteering and working part-time.
The district court found that Lisa could reasonably be expected to obtain a full-time special-education position with a starting salary of $36,000 and that, given her long absence from the workforce, she was not intentionally limiting her income. The court also issued a lengthy memorandum of law, setting forth its view that it was reasonable to expect Lisa to return to work and be partially self-supporting, but concluded that it was not permitted to impute income to her without a finding of bad faith.
Jeff appealed, contending that the district court had erred in conflating two distinct concepts: imputation of income and ability to be self-supporting. The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed, holding that the trial court had read the cases prohibiting imputation of income too broadly. The decision clarifies that the time before the dissolution is to be distinguished from the time after the dissolution, noting that imputation of income can be punitive when applied retroactively to a party whose work history during the marriage was part-time or non-existent. In contrast, prior cases do not preclude a determination that a party receiving maintenance can, after the judgment, obtain additional education or training and a job providing greater income than that earned during the marriage. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals remanded the case for a reassessment of the maintenance award.
It is possible that Lisa Passolt’s attorneys may petitition the Minnesota Supreme Court for review. If so, the final chapter of this saga may not yet be written.