Husband and Wife divorced in 1998. The court ordered Husband to pay $1,100 in child support and $1,000 in maintenance. At the time of the decree, Wife earned $1,387 per month as a registered nurse and Husband earned $5,500 per month as an attorney. In 2003, the Social Security Administration determined that Wife was eligible for disability benefits due to rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, and hypothyroidism. Five years later, Husband filed a motion to modify the dissolution decree by reducing his child support obligations and eliminating his maintenance obligations. At the same time, Wife filed a motion to modify, requesting an increase in child support and an additional college provision. Wife was receiving $1,215.60 in disability benefits for herself and $668 per month for her two children as of the date of trial on the motion for modification. Husband earned $125,000 per year from his law practice.
At trial, Wife’s treating physician testified that Wife was unable to work due to her arthritis. However, Husband presented an expert medical witness who testified that Wife was not disabled and could return to work. In addition, a vocational rehabilitation expert testified that Wife could earn a full-time salary up to $52,000 per year based on a “sedentary level of activity.” Ultimately, the trial court found that Wife was not completely disabled and was able to perform part-time work. The court imputed an income for Wife based on 20 hours per week and $20 per hour for work performed for 48 weeks out of the year. On average, Wife could earn $1,600 per month. The imputed income was considered additional to her Social Security disability benefit. Husband’s monthly maintenance was decreased to $500 but his child support obligations were increased to $1,273 and the trial court ordered Husband to pay eighty-five percent of the children’s post-secondary education costs. Lastly, the court did not make the child support award retroactive to the date Wife served her motion to increase Husband’s child support obligations.
Appellate review of a trial court’s judgment modifying a dissolution decree is limited to deciding whether the judgment is “supported by substantial evidence, is against the weight of the evidence, or erroneously declares or applies the law.” The provisions of any judgment in regard to maintenance or support “may be modified only upon a showing of changed circumstances so substantial and continuing as to make the terms of the original award unreasonable. Changed circumstances sufficient to support modification must be proven by detailed evidence and must also show that the prior decision is unreasonable. The party seeking modification has the burn to establish the original decree has become unreasonable.
Wife claims that the court erred in reducing Husband’s monthly maintenance obligation because there is not substantial evidence to support the judgment and because the court erred in imputing income from part-time employment while assuming continued receipt of Social Security disability benefits.
On Wife’s first issue for appeal, the court determined there was substantial evidence to support the trial court’s finding that Wife was able to obtain employment and that Husband’s maintenance obligations should be reduced accordingly. First, social security determination is not binding on Missouri courts. Second, both Husband and Wife presented medical experts about Wife’s disability. The trial court found that Husband’s expert was more persuasive. “Given the standard of review, there are not sufficient grounds for reversing the trial court’s factual determinations.”
On Wife’s second issue for appeal, the court determined that while it is true that Wife may be able to work more than 80 hours per month and earn $1,600, she cannot receive Social Security disability benefits simultaneously. The court stated:
Federal social security disability benefits are intended to replace income lost due to the recipient’s inability to work. The applicable regulations provide that disability benefits will stop if the recipient engages in ‘substantial gainful activity.’ ‘Substantial gainful activity’ is any work activity that involves significant mental or physical activities and is undertaken for pay or profit. A recipient is deemed to have engaged in substantial gainful activity if the recipient works more than 80 hours per month or earns a monthly net income of more than $530.
When the court imputed to Wife the ability to work 80 hours per month and earn $1,600 per month, that level of work and income would constitute “substantial gainful activity” disqualifying Wife from her Social Security disability benefits. Therefore, the trial court erred in considering both Wife’s imputed income and her Social Security disability benefits as a basis for reducing Husband’s maintenance obligation. The judgment with respect to Husband’s maintenance obligations was reversed.
Likewise, the court also reversed the part of the judgment that declined to make the increased child support obligation retroactive. Even though St. Louis County Local Rule 68.9(1) provides that modified child support is retroactive, the effective date of a modification is left to the discretion of the trial court and will only be reversed on appeal if the appellant demonstrates an abuse of discretion. The trial court declined to make the child support aware retroactive because of Wife’s receipt of Social Security benefits for herself and the children. In doing so, the court relied on the assumption that Wife’s financial situation included the imputed income of $1,600 and the Social Security benefits and therefore overcame the presumption of retroactivity. However, as previously mentioned, Wife cannot earn $1,600 per month from employment while still receiving Social Security benefits. Therefore, that part of the judgment was reversed. The remainder of the judgment was affirmed and the case was remanded.
Jim Young has been practicing Family Law for over twenty years. He is a member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and is a past president of the Missouri Chapter of the national organization. He is also a member of the Missouri Bar Family Law Section and has written the text for a divorce video for the Missouri Bar. He is a frequent speaker at seminars including a recent seminar on child support methodology and joint physical custody situations.
I would like to thank Trisha McCulloch, a third-year law Family Law emphasis student at the University of Missouri – Kansas City for her assistance with this case review.