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All in the Family: District court ignores record evidence in modification motion

On March 30, 2020, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued its decision in Warrington v. Warrington — an opinion that provides optimal guidance on motions to modify alimony and/or child support.

In Warrington, Husband and Wife were married in 2002. They have one minor child together. Husband filed for divorce in May 2016. A two-day trial was held in February 2017.

The District Court found that Husband was employed as a FedEx pilot, earning gross monthly income of approximately $28,729.

Wife had been a self-employed commodities broker with McVean Trading and Investments since 1994. The District Court found that Wife had three employment options going forward: (1) remain self-employed with McVean resulting in continued decreasing income; (2) remain self-employed, but move away from McVean, resulting in increased income; and (3) obtain a position as a W-2 employee with a brokerage firm, decreasing her income.

For the purpose of establishing ongoing child support and maintenance, the District Court found Wife’s income to be $167,476 per year and projected income of $200,000 per year within three years.

The District Court awarded Wife spousal maintenance for three years. Husband was ordered to pay $7,750 per month until the sale of the marital residence and $2,250 per month after the sale of the marital residence. Wife was also awarded $1,027 per month in basic child support.

In June 2018, Wife filed a motion to modify child support and spousal maintenance, arguing Husband’s income had increased significantly. She alleged Husband accepted a new position with FedEx and relocated to Memphis without exercising parenting time or contributing to the minor child’s ongoing expenses. Wife also alleged her income had dropped 46.5% since entry of the Judgment and Decree.

Husband’s responsive pleadings alleged that he earned an annual base salary of $344,746 as a line check airman, with an additional $77,869 in “overtime” pay. The District Court included the “overtime” pay in Husband’s income for determining maintenance, citing the fact that Husband’s required 77 flight hours per month resulted in work weeks of less than 40 hours.

Still, the District Court denied Wife’s motion, finding that Wife failed to provide adequate documentation to support her alleged decrease in income. The Order was silent on whether the increase in Husband’s income constituted a change of circumstance under the modification statute. In addition, Husband was awarded conduct-based attorney fees in the amount of $13,355.

On appeal, Wife argued that the District Court failed to properly analyze her motion to modify under Minn. Stat. sec. 518A.39.

Judge Bryan noted that the party requesting modification of child support or spousal maintenance must show that a “substantial change in circumstances” has occurred. He reiterated that the relevant statute provides quantifiable thresholds.

When those thresholds are met, the District Court “must apply two separate presumptions to the modification request.” First, the District Court must presume there has been a substantial change. Second, the Court must presume that the current order is “unreasonable and unfair.”

As to spousal maintenance modification, Minn. Stat. sec. 518A.39 mandates a presumption of unfairness if Wife demonstrated that her income had decreased by at least 20% through no fault of her own.

Judge Bryan noted that the District Court was mistaken about Wife’s submissions falling short. It was “clear error,” as Wife had, in fact, provided tax returns and other documented income evidence – including summaries of her assets under management and copies of her paystubs.

The District Court was supposed to consider Wife’s current income relative to the findings in the Judgment and Decree. However, no such comparison took place. As a result, the Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, ordering the District Court to determine whether Wife’s change in income satisfied the 20% threshold set forth in Minn. Stat. sec. 518A.39.

On the issue of modifying child support, the modification statute requires the District Court to consider whether a calculated order is “at least 20 percent and at least $75 per month higher or lower than the current support order.”

Wife argued that the District Court erred in failing to calculate a new support order that considered the income changes of the parties. Judge Bryan agreed.

The District Court found that Husband’s income increased by $72,870 per year to a total annual income of $417,616 — an increase of 21%. According to Judge Bryan, “Even without considering the asserted decrease in wife’s income, the District Court’s findings of husband’s new income alone could result in a new child support calculation that triggers the statutory presumptions.”

As to the award of conduct-based attorney’s fees in favor of Husband, the Court of Appeals reversed. Judge Bryan opined that “wife did not unreasonably litigate the modification motions. Husband’s own affidavit indicates a large increase in his income, justifying wife’s decision to request modification.”

The Warrington decision provides an easy-to-understand framework as you consider filing a motion to modify spousal maintenance or child support.

The District Court was not interested in modifying, despite compelling evidence in favor of Wife. Curious, given the concreteness of the record and the level of increased income enjoyed by Husband. Was it a matter of oversight? Or, had the District Court lost patience? MNCIS reveals a 26-page Register of Actions in Warrington.

It will be interesting to see the result on remand. Given Judge Bryan’s conclusion that Wife did not unreasonably litigate her motion, we suspect a modification may be on the horizon.

Jason and Cynthia Brown, husband and wife, are the founding shareholders in the Brown Law Offices, P.A., a northwest Twin Cities divorce and family law firm.

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