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Bismarck, ND - Divorce lawyer represented appellant with appealing from a judgment awarding spousal support.
Jean and Thomas Kaspari married in 1983. The parties separated in
2013. In 2019, Jean Kaspari filed for divorce. The district court ordered
Thomas Kaspari to pay interim spousal support of $2,000 per month to Jean
Kaspari. The parties stipulated to a property division. A trial was held on the
issues of an equalization payment, spousal support, and attorney’s fees. The
court granted a divorce, adopted the parties’ stipulated property division, and
ordered Thomas Kaspari to pay Jean Kaspari $7,000 per month in spousal
support until her death or remarriage. Judgment was entered.
[¶3] Thomas Kaspari appealed. We held the district court erred when it
ordered spousal support for an unlimited period of time. Kaspari, 2021 ND 63,
¶ 7. We vacated the spousal support award and remanded the case for the
district court to reconsider the issue of spousal support. Id. at ¶ 8. We did not
consider Thomas Kaspari’s arguments about the amount of the spousal
support ordered. Id.
[¶4] After a hearing on remand, the district court ordered Thomas Kaspari to
pay spousal support of $7,000 per month until he is 65 years old. An amended
judgment was entered.
[¶5] Thomas Kaspari argues the district court erred in the amount of spousal
support it awarded. He claims the court failed to properly consider the
distribution of the parties’ assets and debts, the evidence does not support a
finding of a need for support, and the court improperly attempted to equalize
the parties’ incomes.
[¶6] A district court’s decision on spousal support is a finding of fact, which
will not be reversed on appeal unless it is clearly erroneous. Schmuck v.
Schmuck, 2016 ND 87, ¶ 6, 882 N.W.2d 918. A finding of fact is clearly
erroneous if it is induced by an erroneous view of the law, there is no evidence
to support it, or if we are left with a definite and firm conviction a mistake has
been made. Id.
[¶7] The district court may award spousal support under N.D.C.C. § 14-05-
24.1(1). In deciding whether to award spousal support, the court must consider
the Ruff-Fischer factors, including:
[T]he respective ages of the parties, their earning ability, the
duration of the marriage and conduct of the parties during the
marriage, their station in life, the circumstances and necessities of
each, their health and physical condition, their financial
circumstances as shown by the property owned at the time, its
value at the time, its income-producing capacity, if any, whether
accumulated before or after the marriage, and such other matters
as may be material.
Woodward v. Woodward, 2013 ND 58, ¶ 4, 830 N.W.2d 82 (quoting Duff v.
Kearns-Duff, 2010 ND 247, ¶ 14, 792 N.W.2d 916). The district court is not
required to make detailed findings about each Ruff-Fischer factor, but the court
must explain the rationale for its decision. Woodward, at ¶ 4.
[¶8] In addition to the Ruff-Fischer factors, the district court must also
consider the needs of the spouse seeking support and the other spouse’s ability
to pay. Willprecht v. Willprecht, 2021 ND 17, ¶ 11, 954 N.W.2d 707. The district
court is “not required to complete a calculation to ensure each party’s assets,
debts, and expenses are accounted for in determining spousal support;
however, a clear description of the financial situation of each party is helpful
for this Court in understanding the district court’s rationale in awarding
spousal support.” Id. (quoting Berg v. Berg, 2018 ND 79, ¶ 11, 908 N.W.2d 705).
The goal of spousal support “is not minimal self-sufficiency, but ‘adequate selfsupport after considering the standard of living established during the
marriage, the duration of the marriage, the parties’ earning capacities, the
value of the property and other Ruff-Fischer factors.’” Woodward, 2013 ND 58,
¶ 8 (quoting Moilan v. Moilan, 1999 ND 103, ¶ 15, 598 N.W.2d 81).
[¶9] On remand, the district court modified the duration of the spousal
support and incorporated its prior findings, but it did not modify the amount
of the spousal support. The court made findings about the Ruff-Fischer factors,
including the parties were married in 1983 and Jean Kaspari was 58 years old
and Thomas Kaspari was 59 years old at the time of the divorce. The court
found Thomas Kaspari attended medical school during the marriage, Jean
Kaspari worked until 1996 when the parties agreed she should stop working
to raise their children, and Jean Kaspari returned to work shortly before the
parties separated. The court found the parties accumulated significant debt
during the marriage related to Thomas Kaspari’s return to school to receive
his medical degree and the parties were making their way out of debt.
[¶10] The district court considered Jean Kaspari’s need for support and
Thomas Kaspari’s ability to pay. The court found Jean Kaspari has an
associate’s degree in nursing, she makes $57,000 per year, and it would not be
financially beneficial for her to go back to school due to her limited number of
work years based on her age. The court also found Jean Kaspari no longer lives
in a residence she owns, she testified she is unable to purchase a home, she
owns one vehicle, she is unable to pay her reasonable monthly expenses
without acquiring credit card debt, she is unable to provide financial support
for the parties’ adult children, and she testified she is unable to do the things
she enjoyed during the marriage on her salary. The court found Thomas
Kaspari’s income has consistently increased since the parties separated, he
testified he has been working 70-80 hours each week since the separation, and
he earns over $400,000 per year. The court also found Thomas Kaspari was
awarded the marital home and the mortgage on the property, he has the ability
to spend approximately $140,000 in a year on credit card purchases outside of
his necessities, he has the ability to provide money to the parties’ adult
children and pay for vacations with the children, and he has spent large
amounts of money on various items, including international travel, tractors,
and a plane.
[¶11] The district court ordered Thomas Kaspari to pay $7,000 a month in
spousal support, explaining:
The difference between the parties’ earning ability is
significant. [Jean Kaspari] earns $57,000 each year and [Thomas
Kaspari] earns over $400,000 each year working as a physician. . .
. The Court does note [Thomas Kaspari] is not likely to continue to
earn his current income into the next thirty years as requested by
[Jean Kaspari]. Income disparity will persist through their
careers, therefore, the Court will order the duration of spousal
support in this case to cease when [Thomas Kaspari] reaches the
age of 65 years old, a standard and widely accepted retirement age.
The Court finds this is an appropriate remedy to equalize the
burdens of the divorce.
[Jean Kaspari] is entitled to permanent spousal support in
the amount of $7,000 each month until [Thomas Kaspari] reaches
the age of sixty-five (65) years. [Thomas Kaspari] currently has the
ability to pay this amount to [Jean Kaspari] with an annual income
of approximately $400,000.
[¶12] However, the amount of spousal support awarded is disproportionate to
the evidence of Jean Kaspari’s need for support. Evidence established Jean
Kaspari’s income is approximately $57,000 per year. She claimed she has
approximately $65,000 in annual spending, she estimated a mortgage on the
residence she would like to purchase would be $1,227 per month, the mortgage
payment would be less than what she was paying in rent, and she needed funds
for a down payment on the home. She also claimed there are other things she
would like to do, including travel and help the parties’ adult children
financially. Jean Kaspari’s estimated yearly expenses result in an annual
budget shortfall of approximately $8,000. The evidence of Jean Kaspari’s need
for spousal support is inconsistent with the amount of support awarded.
[¶13] The district court’s findings focus on the disparity in the parties’ incomes,
explaining Jean Kaspari earns $57,000 each year and Thomas Kaspari earns
over $400,000 each year. The court also found Thomas Kaspari has spent large
amounts of money on various items since the parties separated, Jean Kaspari
has been unable to purchase a home or do the things she enjoyed during the
marriage on her salary, and the income disparity will persist through their
careers. The difference in the parties’ earning power may be considered in
determining spousal support, but we have not endorsed equalizing the parties’
incomes as a measure of spousal support. Woodward, 2013 ND 58, ¶ 8. The
court’s award, without further explanation, gives the appearance that the court
was attempting to equalize the parties’ incomes.
[¶14] Although the district court made findings about the Ruff-Fischer factors
and considered Jean Kaspari’s need for spousal support and Thomas Kaspari’s
ability to pay support, the court failed to adequately explain its reason for
awarding spousal support of $7,000 per month when Jean Kaspari did not
show a need for that amount. The court was not required to provide a detailed
calculation of Jean Kaspari’s need for spousal support, but it was required to
make sufficient findings to provide a discernible basis for its decision. See
Willprecht, 2021 ND 17, ¶ 12. Without further explanation from the district
court, the amount appears to be arbitrary or an attempt to equalize the parties’
incomes. We reverse the court’s spousal support decision and remand for the
court to make further findings explaining its decision or to reconsider the
amount of support.
Outcome: We reverse the amended judgment and remand