This article comments upon the recent Court decision in the case of In re Marriage of Schu (2014), Cal.App.4th [No. B251636. Second Dist., Div. Six. Nov. 12, 2014] – herein after referred to as Schu.
The parties in Schu are wife, Genise, and husband, Michael. The Schu case is unique because of the manner in which the Trial Court interpreted the parties’ Marital Settlement Agreement regarding Michael’s payment of “long term” spousal support to Genise.
Further unique are the circumstances in which the parties found themselves after a seventeen (17) year marriage. In 2010, a court sentenced Genise to six years in prison after her conviction of seven (7) counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor under sixteen (16) years of age and three (3) counts of oral copulation of a minor under eighteen (18) years of age. Michael filed a petition for legal separation on April 7, 2010. Three days later, Genise began serving her prison term.
On July 13, 2012, Genise was transported from prison to court to attend a settlement conference. She and Michael reached an agreement. The settlement master recited the terms of the agreement on the record. Both parties were present with counsel. They confirmed that they heard, understood, and agreed to the terms after consulting with counsel. Michael’s attorney agreed to prepare a stipulation for judgment.
The parties agreed to divide their assets, which had a value of about $2 million and included Michael’s pension plans and the family home. Genise received about $914,000 in assets, including $285,000 in cash when Michael sold the family home.
In regard to long-term spousal support, the parties agreed “to deal with that issue WHEN the wife is released from prison.” (Italics added.) The trial court stated, “They are divorced as of today’s date. [T]he issue of spousal support is reserved.” Genise’s counsel added, “There will be a motion to modify support filed at the appropriate time.” There was no mention of a particular date or event upon which the reserved jurisdiction would terminate. The minute order simply stated that “[s]pousal support is reserved.”
In its final form, the stipulated judgment provided: “Husband will continue to pay Wife spousal support in the amount of $500.00 on the first (1st) of each month so long as Wife remains incarcerated, further agreement or until further order of the Court. The Court … will reserve jurisdiction to award long-term spousal support until Wife’s release from incarceration, either parties’ death, the remarriage of Wife, the cohabitation of Wife, or modification or termination by further order of the Court, whichever occurs first.” It provided that the parties had consulted with counsel, understood the terms, and did not act under duress or coercion.
Five weeks before her release from prison, Genise filed a request for long-term spousal support. The hearing was initially set for April 17, three days after her release. At the hearing in July, 2010, three months after Genise had been released from prison, Michael first argued that the trial court lost jurisdiction to conduct the hearing. He also argued that (1) The trial court should deny “support to a child molester”; and (2) Genise could support herself because she received assets worth $914,000 in the property division, including $285,000 in cash from the sale of the home; and (3) the vocational evaluation demonstrates Genise has the capacity to earn $39,000 to $55,000 annually within three years; and he should not support Genise for the three-year interim because she brought her work limitations upon herself.
The vocational examiner’s report stated that Genise was a high school graduate, had extensive volunteer service in schools, but no paid employment since 1990, and a criminal history. Further, she was a registered sex offender. During her three-year parole term, she could not be near children under the age of 18, could not travel more than 50 miles from her home, and must be 100 yards from school settings and parks.
Before the hearing, Genise filed a motion in which she asserted the language that spousal support would be paid “until” (she was released from prison) was inserted into the stipulation for judgment as a result of a mistake or “trickery”. She asked the trial court to grant relief from that part of the judgment based on mistake (Fam. Code, § 2122(e)).
At the July 26 hearing, the trial court concluded that jurisdiction expired and said, “I really do think I don’t have jurisdiction to address the spousal support issue anymore because of the judgment providing the specific conditions under which that jurisdiction would end and I think it’s ended.” Because of the word “When,” the court denied Genise’s request.
The Appellate Court reversed. It pointed out that use of the word “… jurisdiction over the issue of spousal support terminates WHEN Wife is released from prison …” did not give Wife a reasonable amount of time to apply to the Court for an extension of payment of spousal support.
Further, the decision stands for principles which it is very important to recall regarding payment of spousal support:
1. In a long-term marriage (anything over ten (10) years), unless upon an EXPLICIT termination of jurisdiction over the issue of spousal support, the Court will reserve jurisdiction over future payments;
2. Modern Courts are “No fault” and, generally speaking (unless for a conviction of domestic violence upon the receiving spouse), bad behavior on the part of the receiving spouse (with the possible exception of failure to use good-faith efforts to acquire the skills necessary to work, or to seek and maintain employment), will not influence payment of spousal support;
3. Unless parties agree as to the needs and earning capacity of the supported spouse, the Court requires evidence in the form of expert testimony from a Career Counselor who has performed a Vocational Evaluation in order to determine need and earning capacity.
4. Family Law Courts are Courts of Equity, and payment of spousal support an equitable remedy. When in doubt, especially after a long-term marriage, Court’s generally provide for payment of spousal support.
5. If there’s any doubt, Courts will provide for the payment of spousal support.
I’ve seen the Courts obey the above principles repeatedly. While many disagree with the outcome, there is no doubt the prevailing winds favor the payment of spousal support.