Terese J. Singer

Wisconsin Court Reduces Spousal Maintenance After Change in Custody

Spousal maintenance is typically awarded in a divorce so that one spouse can continue to live the life that they were accustomed to living before the divorce. Often in these situations, one spouse is making significantly more than the other, or one has taken time off from his or her career to raise children and is no longer in the workforce. In order to ensure that that parent is not left stranded after a divorce and effectively punished for sacrificing career obligations for family obligations, the court requires that the working spouse give some amount of money, on a monthly basis, to the spouse who was not working or was working a lower-paying job. Spousal maintenance is not necessarily a permanent payment, and it can change over time or with a change in circumstances. Sometimes it may only be awarded until the spouse who is receiving the maintenance has time to get back on his or her feet. A recent case before the Wisconsin Court of Appeals looks at when a change in circumstances can justify spousal maintenance payments being reduced or eliminated altogether.

In In Re Marriage of Hieu N. Arnholt v. Jeffrey C. Arnholt, Hieu and Jeffrey Arnholt split after 10 years of marriage together. At the time of the divorce, Jeffrey was a very well-respected doctor, making over half a million dollars a year. Hieu was an occupational therapist but had not been working for many years while she raised the couple’s five children. In the divorce, Hieu received custody of all five children and was awarded child support from Jeffrey to support them. Additionally, the court found that Hieu was entitled to live the life she had been accustomed to living while she raised her children, and she should receive spousal maintenance to allow her to stay home with them until they reached the age of 18. The court accordingly awarded Hieu $6,000 in spousal support for the next 10 years. It concluded that by the end of these 10 years, their children would be mostly grown, and Hieu would have time to reenter the workforce.

In 2015, Hieu took a job as an occupational therapist earning around $50,000 a year, which met her monthly expenses at the time. Shortly after taking this job, Jeffrey was awarded custody of all five of their children after Hieu refused to comply with court orders concerning visitation and financial matters related to the children. Jeffrey then moved to terminate the child support and spousal maintenance that he was paying, arguing that circumstances had changed because Hieu no longer took care of the kids and she had reintegrated herself into the workforce. The court agreed and granted Jeffrey’s request, reducing his monthly spousal maintenance payments to $500 a month. Hieu appealed.

Under Wisconsin law, courts may modify a spousal maintenance award if a substantial change in circumstances occurs. The courts must carefully consider whether the individual receiving the maintenance has the ability to maintain a lifestyle similar to what he or she previously maintained, and whether the spouse who is paying can afford to pay the maintenance. Here, the courts noted that Hieu and Jeffrey both maintained a very frugal and simple lifestyle, despite Jeffrey’s significant income. Hieu’s expenses were well below her monthly income with her new job, and she no longer had the requirement of providing for her children as she had before. Based on all of these factors, the court of appeals held that Hieu could continue to live a lifestyle similar to the lifestyle she had had before the divorce, which was “comfortably middle class.” The court also ruled that in light of Hieu’s new position and the complete change in custody arrangements, these were substantial changes that warranted a modification of the spousal maintenance. In total, the court of appeals confirmed the lower court’s change in award.

If you believe that you have experienced a substantial change in circumstances, such as a new job or a change in custody, you may be entitled to a modification of your child support payments or spousal maintenance award. More money may be required in order for you to continue to live the lifestyle you were previously used to living, or perhaps you wish to argue that your payments should be reduced as your ex-spouse learns to support him or herself. At Reddin & Singer, LLP, our Milwaukee spousal maintenance attorneys can help you evaluate whether a modification of spousal maintenance may be required and whether a substantial change exists to support it. To speak with a knowledgeable Milwaukee divorce lawyer today, do not hesitate to contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP online or give us a call at 414-271-6400.

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