A couple gets divorced, and one spouse seeks support from the former mate, who is now bearing the substantial costs of their adult child’s college education. Should that heavy – but voluntary – financial burden be considered when spousal support is calculated?

That was the issue at the heart of a case recently heard by the California Court of Appeal (Maher v Strawn).

David Maher and Laurie Strawn separated in 2016, after 18 years of marriage. They later divorced, and David asked the court to award him spousal support.

David had been the primary earner for most of the marriage. With a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a law degree, he had been earning over $200,000 a year as a patent attorney. The San Diego couple lived in a $2 million home.

About a decade before they separated, according to court documents, Laurie suffered violent attacks by David, who weighed 300 pounds and was six feet three inches tall. She kept a diary of the attacks at first, but then stopped because, she said, “he was hitting me so often I didn’t have time to log events any longer.” A court issued a domestic violence restraining order against David.

David testified that he suffered from insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression, which made him unable to work or be around crowds. He said he took Valium and other drugs, including an opioid, and drank wine regularly, sometimes a bottle per day.

Despite his reported inability to hold a job or be in crowds, he occasionally worked as a sports coach, and acknowledged attending rock concerts in Southern California and Las Vegas.

Laurie, also the holder of a Ph.D., had worked for a pharmaceutical company since 2004, earning about $28,000 per month.

When the couple filed for dissolution of the marriage in 2016, Laurie was paying the tuition and living expenses for their 20-year-old son at a state university. She was also supporting their daughter, then in high school but planning to attend a private university where her expenses would be $50,000 a year.

David asked the court to award him more than $15,000 per month in spousal support, saying that was the amount he needed to maintain the standard of living the couple had enjoyed while married.

The court initially ordered Laurie to pay David $4,376 per month, increasing that to $6,218 per month the following year. It imputed an income to David of $1,733 per month, saying he should be able to earn at least the minimum wage.

When the divorce proceedings went to trial in July of 2019, the court found David’s testimony about his inability to work “not credible.” It ordered Laurie to pay him $4,000 per month for one year, reducing to $3,500 the following year, then to $2,500 per month the next year and thereafter.

The trial court acknowledged that Laurie had “an income to pay significant support,” but said it took into consideration the amount of money she was spending for the children’s education.

The judge noted that “sending children to college is at least as much of the marital standard of living as the marital home, vacations, what cars they drive, how often they go out to eat, etc.”

David appealed. He argued that California law prevents him from being required to support his adult child. By reducing Laurie’s payments to him, he said, the trial court was in effect compelling him to bear some of the cost of his adult children’s college educations.

The appellate court disagreed. The real issue, the appellate justices said, was whether the educational expenses Laurie chose to take on could be considered on an equal footing with her other discretionary expenses, such as the home she chose to live in, the automobile she drove, where she vacationed, etc. when it evaluated her ability to pay spousal support.

The justices affirmed the decision of the trial court to include all these expenses in calculating the spousal support Laurie should pay. It also awarded Laurie her costs on appeal.

This is an important holding for spouses dealing with the impact of college tuition upon spousal support. Although it does not allow a payor spouse to automatically credit this expense against the spousal support he or she pays, the Court of Appeal has now acknowledged the importance of this customary expense in its analysis.

By Kayla Horacek