On July 31, 2014, the Second District of the Appellate Court of Illinois issued an instructive opinion relating to spousal support (sometimes referred to as alimony) in the case In re Marriage of Ellen Micheli and John Micheli, 2014 Il App (2d) 121245. A full copy of the opinion is available here. In this case, the husband, John, was ordered to pay spousal maintenance to his ex-wife, Ellen, in the amount of $3,700 per month for seven years plus 20% of any bonuses he receives during that time period. John contested that award of spousal maintenance on appeal saying that an uncapped award of spousal maintenance has no rational relationship to Ellen’s present needs or the parties standard of living during the marriage. The Second District of the Appellate Court of Illinois agreed for the reasons that follow. The ability of the divorce court to award spousal maintenance governed by the IMDMA—if the divorce court cannot find authority act in that statute, it cannot do it. Section 504 of the Illinois Marriage and Dissolution of Marriage Act (IMDMA) (750 ILCS 5/504) sets forth twelve factors that the divorce court is to consider when asked to award one spouse temporary or permanent maintenance:
- the income and property of each party;
- the respective needs of each party;
- the present and future earning capacity of each party;
- any impairment to the parties’ present or future earning capacity, resulting from domestic duties or delayed education or employment opportunities due to marriage;
- the time necessary for the party seeking maintenance to acquire the appropriate education, training, and employment and whether that party can support himself or herself through appropriate employment, or whether, as the custodial parent, it is not appropriate for the party to seek employment;
- the standard of living throughout the marriage;
- the duration of the marriage;
- the age and physical and emotional condition of both parties;
- the tax consequences of the property division;
- the contributions by the party seeking maintenance to the education and career of the other party;
- any valid agreement of the parties; and
- any other factor that the court expressly finds to be just and equitable.
IMDMA § 504(a). None of these factors individually are determinative of whether maintenance should be awarded to a spouse, and the divorce court has broad latitude in what factors to consider in making or not making such an award. Looking to the twelve factors set forth in IMDMA § 504(a), the appellate court agreed that an award of spousal maintenance based upon an uncapped percentage of John’s future bonuses and income is not permitted under the law. The fact that John may earn significantly more in the future has no bearing on Ellen’s present needs or the parties’ standard of living during the marriage.
The importance of this opinion cannot be understated. An award of spousal maintenance based on a sliding scale can become very expensive over the life of the award. Suppose John on average received an annual bonus of $100,000 over the seven years of the maintenance award. In addition to the $300,000 he is obligated to pay with the award of $3,700 per month, he could have ended up paying an additional $140,000 over the life of the maintenance award.
Divorce is expensive, but spending money on your attorney can save you money
An additional takeaway from this opinion is the amount of attorney fees the parties paid. Paragraph 12 outlines that Ellen’s attorneys billed a total of $182,000 for their services, and John’s attorneys billed $95,000. Combined, the lawyers’ bills for this case exceeded $277,000! In a case like this where the amount of spousal maintenance alone could exceed $500,000 (and that does not include child support or property distribution), it was probably worth it for both parties to put up such a fight. For your divorce, the cost-benefit calculation for so aggressively litigating the case may be different. An experienced divorce attorney in the McHenry County area can provide you with the information you need to make this important decision.