For years Ottawa County was one of the outlier counties when it came to spousal support. Several years ago, a female judge from Ann Arbor might look at a set of facts and award $3,000.00 a month in alimony for an unknown period of years, and a judge from Ottawa County, looking at the same set of facts, might award $1,000.00 per month for two years. That disparity has been reduced significantly. Today Ottawa County judges award spousal support in amounts and similar to what other counties award.
The main purpose of awarding spousal support is to balance the incomes and needs of the parties without impoverishing either party. Spousal support “is to be based on what is just and reasonable under the circumstances of the case.”
Michigan Courts use the following factors when deciding the amount or length of spousal support: (1) the past relations and conduct of the parties, (2) the length of the marriage, (3) the abilities of the parties to work, (4) the source and amount of property awarded to the parties, (5) the parties’ ages, (6) the abilities of the parties to pay alimony; this can mean not only actual earnings, but the ability to earn income, (7) the present situation of the parties, (8) the needs of the parties, (9) the parties’ health, (10) the prior standard of living of the parties and whether either is responsible for the support of others, (11) contributions of the parties to the joint estate, (12) a party’s fault in causing the divorce, and as to fault, the relative value to be given fault and the extent to which particular actions are regarded as fault contributing to the breakdown of a marriage are issues calling for a subjective response left to the trial court’s discretion subject to the requirement that the distribution not be inequitable. (13) the effect of cohabitation on a party’s financial status, and (14) general principles of equity.
Sometimes the analysis is not extremely difficult. If one spouse raised the children and the other increased his or her earning potential through education or experience, then a Court will consider that the main purpose of awarding spousal support is to balance the incomes and needs of the parties without impoverishing either party. But, even then the Court must consider all the factors, and not just need.
When calculating child support the State supplies a child support manual and Guidelines that take much of the mystery out of the equation. Come to my office, answer a bunch of questions, I plug it all into a computer program and I can give you a fairly accurate estimate as to the amount of child support.
The same is not true for spousal support (alimony). I use two computer programs to assist me in calculating or estimating spousal support, but they only consider about four factors, not 14. Because they leave out so many of the factors, they offer only the most general idea or assistance in evaluating spousal support. It might be noted that a trial court’s refusal to admit the spousal support prognosticator report into evidence is error, but not necessarily reversible error. It should be further noted, that most trial courts know the inherent limitations of the spousal support prognosticators to use 4 and not 14 factors.
Weighing the factors is not a scientific endeavor. In fact, sometimes the unnamed factor, who is doing the evaluating (ie, who is the judge) is also a critical factor (factor 15?). Come trial day and, if to your surprise you wind up with a visiting judge, you attorney may need to discard prior evaluations or predictions.
It is important to have an attorney who knows the intricacies of spousal support and who knows the predilections of the local trial judges.