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Split COA: Maintenance not required in divorce of disabled spouse

January 31, 2019

A woman who receives Social Security Disability was not entitled to spousal maintenance, a divided panel of the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled, turning back a request on appeal to find that eligibility for SSD should constitute prima facie evidence of incapacity.

The appellate panel made the holding in affirming a Boone Circuit Court order in Dorothy Campbell v. Mark Reed Campbell, 18A-DR-361. Dorothy, whose onset of disability was in 1997, filed for divorce in 2016. The trial court issued its dissolution decree the next year, denying her petition for spousal maintenance.

“To reverse in this case would imply that if one of the divorcing parties is elderly and receiving SSD, maintenance is always required. We decline to reach such a result,” Judge John G. Baker wrote for the majority joined by Judge Melissa May. “Cases like this are extremely fact-sensitive and filled with nuance that our trial courts are best able to sift through. We believe it wise of our legislature to vest our trial courts with discretion in such matters and will not step into the trial court’s exercise of discretion here.”

In footnotes, the panel remarked that whether SSD eligibility should be evidence of incapacity is “irrelevant. The simple fact is that nothing in the statute or caselaw indicates that it is, in fact, prima facie evidence of incapacity.” The panel also noted it found Dorothy’s constitutional equal protection argument waived because she failed to raise it below and cited no supporting authority.

But partially dissenting Judge Margret Robb wrote that while an SSD award does not equate to incapacity in every situation, it did here, and the trial court got it wrong.

“…I am unable to agree with the majority that on these facts, the trial court did not abuse its discretion,” Robb wrote. “The trial court stated it was unsure if Dorothy’s benefits were for disability or retirement, mentioned Dorothy’s age as the reason for her not working, and implied that Dorothy was required to present evidence other than her own testimony that she was unable to work due to her disability. These findings suggest to me that the trial court did not apply the appropriate standard in determining whether Dorothy should be awarded spousal maintenance.”

The majority also agreed in a footnote that the trial court erred in a finding stating, “The (trial) Court is unsure if those are disability benefits or retirement benefits,” when Dorothy’s sole income in the record was disability benefits.

Robb also noted it was Dorothy’s disability, rather than her age, that caused her to stop working in 1996, after which her ex-husband also benefitted from SSD payments and provided for any shortfall. “She has no safety net now,” Robb wrote. “…I would remand for the trial court to reconsider Dorothy’s request for spousal maintenance in light of the correct standard.”

The COA also unanimously affirmed the trial court’s valuation of a vehicle belonging to the couple.

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