Q: If there is an agreement, how much discretion does the judge have to modify what the parties have temporarily agreed to?
If the parties agree, the judges are just going to accept the agreement, but they have a lot of discretion in the decisions made in the first place. The exception would be if the agreement was so one-sided that it was ridiculous. Also, if they are saying to the judge they can’t agree and need the judge to make a decision, the judge has a very wide amount of discretion. They will look at how much it’s going to cost to try to live at the same standard and what it might be in a smaller living place. They will decide what’s more important and balance to make sure one side is not economically going to be so much better or so much worse off than the other side.
Q: If there is no agreement between the soon to be ex-spouses on alimony, what is the discussion point you bring to the court to minimize your client’s alimony amount?
The main discussion point is whether the person receiving the alimony is working up to their capabilities — their earning capacity. If it’s someone who is wealthy and they have the skills for a career, the main point is making sure they’re working full-time and doing everything they can to support themselves. If they don’t have job skills or maybe they have an old job, and they have to get them refreshed, then it’s making sure they get the right education, and they do everything they can as soon as they can to be able to support themselves and minimize the amount of alimony that they’re receiving.
That’s the point we try to bring up very early in a divorce. What we don’t want to do is have a divorce go by and then once it’s done maybe for the first time bring up the subject of somebody going to work or learning how to support themselves. It all needs to be brought up very early so that if it’s going to take some time, it can start during the divorce rather than once everything is finalized.
The main point is focusing on someone’s earning capacity. Then, a lot of the other factors come into play. For example, if they have small children at home it impacts their ability to go to work full-time. Or an illness or injury could be a factor. But really it needs to be fair. No one is supposed to just sit back and live off the luxury of marriage and divorce by not helping themselves and not supporting themselves.
The law actually requires that someone who is receiving alimony do everything they can and within a reasonable amount of time to become self-supporting as fast as possible. So that’s a standard we hold everybody to. Of course the sooner you start hopefully the sooner you’re able to get there.
Q: Is it ever built into an alimony judgment or agreement, for example, that a person’s disability is short-term or they’re a stay at home parent until the child turns 18, where the alimony obligation changes after a fixed period of time?
That happens all the time. If you get an agreement where you’re able to include something into the judgment where there are known circumstances that are going to change in the coming months or years, we can include it. If you don’t have an agreement and it’s a judge making the decision, judges will usually bill in things that are short term, and if you know something’s going to change in the next few months or maybe in a year they will bill that in. If it’s up in the air, such as someone who is going to school and you don’t know when they’re going to get out, judges will make an alimony order for now under the current circumstances and then invite people to come back later when the circumstances have changed.