Handwritten Provisions for Maintenance Not Modifiable
In Missouri divorce cases, courts may award spousal maintenance, also known as spousal support or alimony, to a spouse in certain situations. The parties to a divorce may also enter into a settlement agreement that includes spousal maintenance. A court may order, or the parties may agree, that a spousal maintenance order is not subject to modification. The final order must clearly state whether or not modification is allowed. Earlier this year, the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled on a dispute between two ex-spouses over the ex-husband’s motion to modify his spousal maintenance obligation. At issue was whether their original divorce decree, which included numerous handwritten provisions, allowed modification or not. The husband argued that the decree was ambiguous, but the court disagreed.
Spousal Maintenance in Missouri Divorce
A court may award spousal maintenance when it finds that a spouse meets two criteria:
- They do not have enough income or other property to support themselves at a reasonable level after the marriage; and
- They either cannot obtain employment that would allow them to support themselves, or they have custody of a child with needs that require them to remain at home instead of working.
Factors that Missouri courts consider when deciding whether to award maintenance include each spouse’s available resources, the amount of time one spouse would need to acquire the education or skills necessary to be self-sufficient, the spouses’ ages, and the length of the marriage.
An spousal maintenance award may have a specific duration, such as a number of years or the period of time until a certain event happens. A spousal maintenance order might say, for example, that one former spouse (the “obligor”) must pay maintenance to the other former spouse (the “obligee”) until the obligee obtains a college degree or for five years, whichever period of time is shorter. Without a defined end point included in a divorce decree, a maintenance obligation ends, according to Missouri law, when:
- Either former spouse dies; or
- The obligee remarries.
Modification of Maintenance Orders
Former spouses may ask the court to modify provisions of their divorce decree relating to child custody, child support, or spousal maintenance. Any sort of modification typically requires evidence of a “substantal and continuing change in circumstances” that has occurred since the date of the previous order.
Missouri courts always have the authority to modify child custody and child support in order to serve a child’s best interests. Spousal maintenance is different. A divorce decree may state that the provisions for maintenance are not modifiable. This would mean that the amount of support cannot be increased or decreased, and that the duration of the obligation cannot be shortened or extended. However, non-modifiable is different than non-terminable, and non-modifiable maintenance orders still terminate upon death of either spouse or remarriage of the recipient, unless the decree specifically states otherwise.
How Do Spousal Maintenance Provisions Become Nonmodifiable?
The recent case before the Missouri Court of Appeals involved a dispute over alleged ambiguity in the handwritten terms of a divorce decree. The spouses in Schrauth v. Schrauth obtained a divorce in January 2020 by presenting an agreed divorce decree to the court. The wife was the petitioner and the husband was the respondent. They used several pre-printed forms provided by the court. They filled in various blanks on the forms and made additional handwritten notations.
Paragraph 14 of the form entitled “Dissolution Judgment” addressed spousal maintenance. It included the following provision: “Respondent is ordered to pay Petitioner the sum of ______ per month as and for maintenance. Said maintenance is ____ subject to modification.” They filled in the blanks with “$800.00” and “not,” respectively. The form included a blank line below this provision, where the parties wrote that the husband would pay $800 per month through February 2021, and $1,000 starting that March until the wife “can collect Social Security by existing law.” The parties’ Separation Agreement was attached to the Judgment, but did not mention whether maintenance was modifiable or not.
The husband filed a motion to modify several provisions in the divorce decree in November 2020, seven months after his spousal maintenance obligation began. He asked the court to terminate the maintenance obligation, arguing that the wife had recently inherited a substantial amount of money and assets, and that she had started working at a higher-paying job. The court granted the wife’s motion to dismiss on the ground that the divorce decree made the maintenance obligation nonmodifiable.
On appeal, the husband argued that the provisions regarding modifiability of the maintenance obligation were ambiguous. The only part that mentioned modification was the preprinted sentence where they filled in “$800” and “not.” The handwritten sentence that followed mentioned both the $800 and $1,000 per month obligations, but did not mention anything about modifiability. The Separation Agreement said nothing about the issue one way or the other. Without a clear indication that both obligations were nonmodifiable, the husband argued, the court should find that the $1,000 obligation is modifiable.
The appellate court disagreed with the husband’s argument. It found that the Judgment had greater legal force than the Separation Agreement because it specifically mentioned modifiability, as required by state law. Since the Judgment stated that maintenance was not modifiable, the court held that this applies to both obligations.
The court described the case as “present[ing] a truly unique set of facts regarding the issue of maintenance modifiability” because of the rather extensive handwritten addenda to the court’s form. It found that the most reasonable interpretation of the maintenance provisions is that neither obligation is modifiable. Because the parties included both the $800 and the $1,000 obligations on the handwritten line, the court interpreted this to mean that their decision to make the $800 obligation nonmodifiable applied to both obligations.
Mark A. Wortman, a Kansas City family attorney, has dedicated his entire practice to divorce and other family law matters. To schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you, please contact us today online or at (816) 523-6100.