Thursday, March 21, 2013

Entitlement to Spousal Support

In S.M.C. v. W.P.C., Pennsylvania courts analyzed defenses to spousal support. Husband and Wife were married in 1994 and had one child in 2003. In an October 2010 hearing regarding spousal support, Wife testified that she left the marital home in June 2010 because Husband was verbally abusive and angry when discussing a cruise she took with female friends in April 2010. Wife further testified that Husband was angry with her because he felt it was improper for a wife to be alone without her husband. Wife was afraid to return home after the cruise because Husband had sent her numerous nasty messages while she was gone. Wife testified that she only returned to the home because her seven-year-old daughter was there. Wife also testified that three days after she left the marital home, she met her current boyfriend. Wife testified that she began dating her boyfriend three days after she left the marital home.

Husband testified that Wife’s cruise was the tipping point in the relationship and he was angry that she went on the cruise over his objections. Husband also testified that he learned about Wife’s relationship with her boyfriend just a few weeks prior to the October spousal support hearing.

At the October spousal support hearing, the hearing officer decided that Wife’s conduct post-separation was not relevant to an award of spousal support. In November 2010, Husband filed exceptions to the hearing officer’s recommendations. The trial court heard oral arguments in February 2011 and denied Husband’s exceptions and converted the hearing officer’s temporary order into a final order. Husband then appealed.

Husband’s first three issues on appeal dealt with the award of spousal support to Wife. Husband argued that it was error for the trial court to award Wife spousal support because she voluntarily left the home, went on a cruise with her friend against her husband’s wishes, and engaged in an affair post-separation.

Pennsylvania spousal support law states that “married persons are liable for the support of each other according to their respective abilities to provide support as provided by law.” 23 Pa.C.S.A. § 4321(1). An exception to this obligation exists where the recipient spouse conducts him or herself in a manner that would constitute grounds for a fault-based divorce. Under the Divorce Code, 23 Pa.C.S.A. §3301(a), a fault-based divorce may be granted to the innocent and injured spouse when the spouse has done one or more of six things:
(1) committed willful and malicious desertion and absence from the habitation of the injured and innocent spouse, without a reasonable cause, for the period of one or more years;
(2) committed adultery;
(3) by cruel and barbarous treatment, endangered the life or health of the injured and innocent spouse;
(4) knowingly entered into a bigamous marriage while a former marriage is still subsisting;
(5) been sentenced to imprisonment for a term of two or more years upon conviction of having committed a crime.;
(6) offered such indignities to the innocent and injured spouse as to render that spouse’s condition intolerable and life burdensome.

With respect to Husband’s assertion that indignities arose as a result of Wife’s affair after the separation, the Appellate Court has held that misconduct engaged in post-separation is not considered unless it supports misconduct that occurred prior to the separation. In this case, Husband did not allege that Wife committed any indignities before the separation; therefore, Husband would have had no claim for a fault divorce and, thus, had no claim for denial of spousal support. 

Husband’s assertion that Wife going on a cruise with her friend constituted indignities was wholly unfounded. A single act by a spouse does not give rise to a finding of indignities. For indignities to be successfully raised as a reason for divorce, there must be a course of conduct that is humiliating and degrading to a spouse. Wife’s vacation with her friend did not constitute indignities, and Husband’s anger at Wife for going did not make his life so intolerable that he could include indignities as a reason to prevent spousal support.

Additionally, Husband argued that Wife should not be entitled to spousal support because Wife left the marital home without cause and, therefore, Husband had a claim of desertion against Wife. In order to overcome a claim of desertion, the trial court must find that the spouse who left the marital home had shown evidence of an “adequate legal cause” for leaving. Wife was receiving nasty messages from Husband while she was on vacation, which caused her to be afraid to return home, and Husband had been emotionally abusive to her throughout the marriage. The trial court found there was enough evidence to conclude that Wife had adequate legal cause to leave the marital home and that her departure was not on a whim or done with malice. Therefore, Husband did not have a claim for denial of spousal support based on the theory of desertion. 

In summary, there are grounds for denying spousal support in Pennsylvania, but the payor must be able to prove his or her assertions. If a divorce complaint is filed, the spouse would be eligible for alimony pendente lite. There are no fault grounds for denying alimony pendente lite. The distinction is important and you should strategize with your lawyer whether to file a divorce complaint to avoid the potential finding of a denial of spousal support via fault.

If you have questions or concerns about spousal support, you should contact an attorney.

Written by Allyson Lutley, former law clerk to The Law Offices of Linda A. Kerns, LLC.  Edited by Elizabeth A. Bokermann, Esquire, associate attorney.

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