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Mark Olberding Sept. 4, 2009

Many people, attorneys included, believe that when both spouses are working outside the home and have been married for less that 20 years, the court will not award alimony.  Two cases decided by the Iowa Court of Appeals on September 2, 2009 show that this is not always the case.

Alimony may be used to compensate a spouse who leaves the marriage at a financial disadvantage.

There are three types of alimony—traditional, rehabilitative, and reimbursement. . Traditional alimony is “payable for life, or for so long as the spouse is incapable of self-support.” Rehabilitative alimony is “a way of supporting an economically dependent spouse through a limited period of re-education or retraining following divorce, thereby creating incentive and opportunity for that spouse to become self-supporting.” Reimbursement alimony “is predicated upon economic sacrifices made by one spouse during the marriage that directly enhance the future earning capacity of the other.”


Brandy was employed at Amana Manufacturing at the time of their marriage, and Jim was pursuing a college degree. Brandy paid a portion of his student loans. She cashed in her pension with her employer to pay the wedding expenses (about $7000), and to forward a down-payment on their marital home. Brandy worked while Jim was obtaining his college degree, and for a few months until he found a job. When Brandy became pregnant, the couple agreed that she should remain in the home to care for their children.

This marriage is not short by any means. Thirteen years is a generous portion of one’s early adulthood. Each are in their mid-thirties. Jim was a student in college at the time of their union and presently boasts a college degree, while Brandy has only a couple of semesters of college credit. The educational level of each party at the time of marriage and at the time the action is commenced is a factor to be considered.

Brandy will need a few years to earn a degree, or, in the alternative, several years of experience in some employment to attain a plateau where she can responsibly care for herself financially. The feasibility of the party seeking maintenance becoming self-supporting at a standard of living reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage, and the length of time necessary to achieve this goal is also a factor in setting alimony. Jim has a rewarding position in a positive profession that appears to be stable, earning over $70,000 annually; Brandy was out of the job market for years, returning to the workforce with varying results and was unemployed at the time of the dissolution.

The earning capacity of the party seeking maintenance, including educational background, training, employment skills, work experience, length of absence from the job market, responsibilities for children under either an award of custody or physical care, and the time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party to find appropriate employment are also factors to be considered in awarding alimony.

The dissolution court awarded Brandy alimony in the sum of $500 per month for ten years, commenting that, “Brandy will have the opportunity to complete her degree and obtain employment that will provide income to her that will allow Brandy to live a lifestyle reasonably equivalent to that during the marriage.”

The second case was IN RE THE MARRIAGE OF TRACY ALAN HOWELL AND LISA ANN HOWELL, where the Court stated: In our review, we believe an award of spousal support is necessary to do equity in this case. Lisa and Tracy’s marriage lasted eleven years. During the parties’ marriage, Lisa’s career and earning capacity were put on hold while she took on a care giver and housekeeper role for the family and Tracy acted as the main breadwinner. Lisa’s staying at home benefitted the family and enabled Tracy to steadily increase his income. Although Lisa reentered the workforce in 2005, she has continued to earn significantly less than she did prior to the parties’ marriage. The district court imputed Lisa’s income at $23,868 for purposes of calculating Tracy’s child support obligation. In contrast, Tracy now earns close to $90,000 including overtime and bonuses.

For the foregoing reasons, we believe this case falls within the category of cases where an award of spousal maintenance is needed to achieve equity. A number of the factors set forth in Iowa Code section 598.21A support such an award, including the length of the marriage, Lisa’s relative earning capacity, her length of absence from the job market, her responsibilities for the children, and the feasibility of her becoming self-supporting at a standard of living reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage. Simply stated, when Lisa and Tracy married each other, they were at the same income level; now, due to the marriage and their children, Lisa earns about one-fourth of what Tracy earns. Thus, this is the kind of case where alimony is appropriate. However, we do not feel it is necessary to award alimony until the youngest child turns eighteen, as requested by Lisa. Upon our review, we grant Lisa alimony in the amount of $800 per month for seventy-two months.