Trial Court Must Make Spousal Maintenance Determination at Time of Decree

Case: Marjorie O. Lesley v. Robert T. Lesley 
by Mike Kohlhaas, Bingham Greenebaum Doll (with thanks to Tamara McMillian)

HELD: A trial court must make a spousal maintenance determination at the time the Decree is entered, and it may not defer that decision to await additional information that becomes available after Decree.

Husband and Wife married in 1991. By 2009, Wife had been diagnosed with lupus, fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and anxiety. Wife filed with SSA for disability benefits, which was denied by SSA and which Wife appealed.

In 2010, while Wife’s appeal of her SSA denial was pending, Husband filed for divorce. In response, Wife filed a request for incapacity based maintenance in the divorce.

In 2011, after a final hearing, the trial court issued its Decree. In the Decree, the trial court recited that Wife’s claims for SSA disability had been denied, and that Wife had not otherwise presented a case to the trial court that would support a maintenance claim. Importantly, however, the Decree added: “Upon a determination by the Social Security Administration that Wife is disabled, the Court will re-evaluate issues of child support, maintenance, and educational expenses, retroactively.”

In late 2011, the SSA ruled on Wife’s appeal of her disability benefits denial, determining that Wife had been disabled retroactive to October 2009. Wife then filed a petition with the trial court requesting spousal maintenance based upon the SSA’s determination. After a hearing, the trial court issued an order granting Wife rehabilitative maintenance – not incapacity-based maintenance – for a period retroactive to the date of Decree and for a term of three years. Wife appealed the trial court’s award of rehabilitative maintenance, rather than incapacity-based maintenance; Husband cross-appealed arguing that the trial court lacked authority to reconsider its original denial of maintenance in its Decree.

The Court of Appeals noted this to be an issue of first impression. The Court noted that the burden to establish her incapacity at the final hearing rested entirely upon Wife, and the trial court’s findings indicate that Wife failed to meet that burden. “As a matter of law, the trial court could not retain authority to reevaluate, postpone, or defer that determination based upon a subsequent decision from the SSA.”

The trial court’s award of maintenance in favor of Wife was reversed.

Judge Baker wrote a separate concurring opinion, indicating that the better approach for the trial court may have been to continue its final hearing until after the SSA had made its determination of Wife’s appeal of the denial of her benefits.

To view the text of this opinion in its entirety, click here: Marjorie O. Lesley v. Robert T. Lesley


The Indiana Family Law Update is a free service provided by the Matrimonial Law Group of Bingham Greenebaum Doll, LLP. While significant efforts are made to ensure an accurate summary and reproduction of each opinion, readers are advised to verify all content and analysis with a traditional case law reporter before relying on the content and analysis offered here.

ICLEF • Indiana Continuing Legal Education Forum, Indianapolis, IN

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