Many divorce Judgments include provisions for spousal support. These provisions often include a date at which time support shall drop to $0, which may be accompanied by the termination of the Court’s jurisdiction to modify support. Spousal support is designed to help a party transition to economic autonomy, so there is usually also language in the Judgment that advises a party of the need to make efforts to become self-supporting.

There are many reasons a spouse may fail to become self-supporting: He/she might become ill or jobs in his/her field may dry up. There are some excuses that just won’t fly in Court. For example, if a spouse doesn’t try to find work, or if he/she remains underemployed, or if he/she fails to complete education to become qualified for more-profitable work (if such an expectation was outlined in the Judgment). Either way, in the event that a spouse wants to extend the date when support ends, he/she needs to ask the Court for relief.

What is and isn’t a valid reason to request such relief was just made a bit clearer; in a decision filed June 19, 2012, the California Court of Appeal, Sixth District, backed up a trial court’s decision not to extend spousal support for a woman who had failed to become self-supporting because she sought education to make more money than had been anticipated in the Judgment.

Sameer Khera had filed for divorce from Madhu Sameer on October 10, 2003 after 17 years of marriage. The parties reached a settlement, pursuant to which support would start June 1, 2007 at $2,650 a month. It would step down through June 1, 2010, whereupon it would reduce to zero (unless Madhu filed a motion to extend that date). Included in the Judgment was an expectation that Madhu would get her Master’s in Social Work, which would enable her to increase her income from near minimum-wage to $40,000 a year (and ultimately more if she became certified as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker).

Madhu didn’t do that. Instead, she elected to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology. At the time she filed her motion to extend the support termination date (in early 2009), she was making only $700 a month. Any modification to spousal support orders requires a “material change in circumstances” [In re Marriage of McCann (1996)], which can be in the form of “unrealized expectations” [In re Marriage of Beust (1994)] such as, despite a supported spouse’s reasonable efforts, he/she is unable to support him/herself. [In re Marriage of Aninger (1990)]  Madhu argued, in her request, that her failure to support herself constituted a material change of circumstances warranting an extension of the termination date.

Neither the trial court, nor the appellate court that upheld the lower court’s decision, was convinced. “In our view, a voluntary decision to pursue a doctoral degree rather than entering the working world fulltime does not constitute a material change of circumstances in the context of this case… Nothing in the parties’ stipulation, or the judgment entered pursuant to the stipulation, suggested that the parties expected spousal support to facilitate a voluntary decision by Madhu to pursue higher education beyond a MSW degree, if she was able to be self-supporting based on her education and skills in the existing job market. Madhu did not show that despite her reasonable efforts she was unable to support herself.”

The full opinion can be found here.

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