How Disability Benefits Can Affect a Florida Alimony Case

There are many things that can play a role in the outcome of your Florida alimony case. The court must decide whether your marriage counts as a short, moderate, or long-term marriage. The judge must also determine the paying spouse’s ability to pay and the recipient spouse’s need. Another thing that can add an extra layer of complexity to your case is if the recipient spouse is disabled. In one recent case from the Tampa Bay area, the Second District Court of Appeal threw out part of a trial court’s ruling in a divorce judgment because the lower court only awarded the wife durational, rather than permanent, alimony, even though the wife was permanently disabled and could not return to work.

The couple in the case married on New Year’s Eve in 2002. Just short of a decade later, they separated. A year after that, the wife filed for divorce. In that filing, she asked for alimony. The husband, at that point, was earning $117,000 per year in gross income. The wife had a degree in psychology and had previously worked as a counselor, but she had developed several medical problems. Shortly before the divorce, an administrative law judge had determined that she was permanently disabled and could not return to work, due to fibromyalgia, traumatic brain injury, and back problems. The wife’s disability benefits, which amounted to a gross of $880 per month, were her only income.

At the trial, the wife’s doctor testified that her back condition made her incapable of working. The husband, however, testified that the real reason the wife was incapable of work was that she abused the prescription pain medications her doctors gave her for her back problems. The trial judge rejected the wife’s demand for permanent alimony and instead ordered the husband to pay the wife $1,800 per month for four years.

The wife appealed and won. In a Florida alimony case, a trial court must resolve four things:  (1) the recipient’s need, (2) the paying spouse’s ability to pay, (3) the appropriate type of alimony, and (4) the amount that the recipient should receive. The third item was the element that triggered the reversal. In this case, the trial judge had already made findings that the appeals court upheld, stating that the wife had a need for alimony and that the husband had the ability to pay. The wife had a net income of $711 per month and expenses in excess of $2,350 per month. The husband netted more than $7,300 per month.

The trial judge also ruled that the evidence showed that the wife was unable to work and that this was not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Under these facts, durational alimony was not proper. The wife in this case had established by “clear and convincing evidence” that she “lacked either the actual capacity for self-support or the potential to develop that capacity.” She subsisted on a fixed income of disability benefits and lacked the ability to change that fact. The wife in this case, the court stated in its opinion, was like the wife in the case of Ruszala v. Ruszala. In that 1978 case, the appeals court ordered the trial judge to award permanent alimony to a wife who was legally blind, receiving disability benefits, and unable to work.

Whether you are making a claim for alimony or defending against a spouse’s claim, it is important to put knowledgeable legal counsel on your side so that you can ensure that you present the strongest possible case to the court. The hardworking South Florida alimony attorneys at Sandy T. Fox, P.A. have the experience that comes with years of helping clients like yourself, and we are ready to assist you with your issues. Contact our attorneys online or by calling (800) 596-0579 to schedule your confidential consultation.

More blog posts:

Governor’s Veto Kills Florida Alimony Reform Bill, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, April 18, 2016

Calculating the Duration of a Marriage for Purposes of Determining Alimony in Florida, Fort Lauderdale Divorce Lawyer Blog, Dec. 28, 2015

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