Wednesday, December 19, 2018

In re Marriage of D.C. and T.C. (Cal. Ct. App. - Dec. 19, 2018)

I'll quote the second sentence of this opinion, and you tell me if it makes sense to you:

"The trial court found that a significant increase in Wife's earnings since the last spousal support order amounted to "changed circumstances" and on that basis reduced her support payments to Husband."

Read that again.

Yes, you read it right.  The Wife made more money.  That's a changed circumstances.  That justifies reducing the amount of money she had to pay to Husband.

And the Court of Appeal agrees with that.

I literally read that sentence three times when I first read the opinion.  I figured there had to be a typo.


It wasn't until around a third of the way through the opinion that I finally understood what the Court of Appeal meant.  Only then did it make sense.

It's not that the support payments to Husband were actually reduced.  No.  That would be crazy.  They were instead merely reduced compared to what was called for in their marital settlement agreement.

Which is a big difference.

See, the MSA called for Husband to receive ten percent of anything Wife eventually made over $180,000.  So, for example, if she made $200,000 in a certain year, Husband would get an extra $2000; i.e., ten percent of $20,000.

As it turns out, she ends up making a boatload more money than expected, because she gets a better job.  So Husband wants his ten percent of the extra cash, but Wife doesn't want to pay.

And the trial court lets her out of the deal.  So what Wife pays is (1) more than what she was paying before, but (2) less than what was called for under the MSA.

The Court of Appeal starts its opinion by focusing on (2).  Which is confusing, because the opinion hadn't yet even talked about an MSA -- much less its contents -- and normally, when you say that a party gets "less" money, you're talking about (1).

So a bit confusing.

On the merits, by the way, I see why the Court of Appeal ends up where it does.  It holds that the trial court can modify the MSA since Wife's making more money than the parties expected, but shouldn't have "capped" the amount in the way the trial court did.  I get that.  Equitable, in a way.

But I gotta also say that I'm not at all certain why it wouldn't also be equitable just to enforce the agreement.  The parties were married for eighteen years.  They've got two kids together.  Both of them worked during the marriage.  The MSA only calls for support payment for seven years.  It doesn't seem crazy to me to say that if Wife (or, for that matter, Husband) suddenly starts making a boatload of money more than expected -- money that would otherwise have gone to the marriage had the parties stayed married -- then the ex-spouse should get a tiny piece of that.

Like -- coincidentally enough -- ten percent.

Doesn't harm the ex-spouse much, who still gets 90 percent of the unexpected windfall. And puts the other ex-spouse in a very slightly better position, and compensates them for the fact that after the divorce, the poorer spouse is now in a much worse position than when s/he had two incomes coming into the family -- and in a super worse position than if those two incomes would have included the new high-paying job received by the now-ex-spouse.

Should that "bonus" money be split 50/50?  No way.  But a ten percent slide to the ex-spouse for a brief period of time -- e.g., seven years -- after two kids and an eighteen-year marriage.

Doesn't seem crazy to me.