In Part One of this blog, I discussed the issue of income imputation (often referred to as earning capacity) in child support cases. The focus of the article was about your options if the other parent voluntarily quit their job and was seeking a modification of child support. As that blog explained income imputation (assigning income to a party that is not actually earned) is fairly straight forward based on California’s significant state interest of ensuring parent’s support their children. If you missed this blog, and you are facing a modification of child support based on the other party voluntarily quitting their job, I highly recommend you go back and read that blog.
But what happens if there are no children; or as is typically the case, there are orders for child and spousal support? Can you still seek to impute income at a party’s previous income when they voluntarily quit their job? The short answer is yes you can.
Family Code Section 4320(c) lists the earning capacity of the supporting spouse as one factor to consider in making spousal support orders. [“The ability of the supporting party to pay spousal support, taking into account the supporting party’s earning capacity, earned and unearned income, assets, and standard of living. Family Code §4320 (c)]
Although Section 4320(c) speaks of earning capacity, the code does not specifically define what it means. For that answer we look to the case, Marriage of Simpson In Simpson, the California Supreme Court stated “‘[E]arning capacity’ represents the income the spouse is reasonably capable of earning based upon the spouse’s age, health, education, marketable skills, employment history, and the availability of employment opportunities.”
Many of the same principles associated with the imputation of income with regard to child support apply to the imputation of earning capacity for spousal support. Just as with child support, the three-prong test of ability, opportunity and willingness that is found in Marriage of Regnery must be proven for spousal support as well. This also includes the principal that no finding of “bad faith” is required to support an imputation of income.
For a very long time, the Courts held that there needed to be a finding of bad faith, or in other words a deliberate attempt to avoid paying spousal support, before a court could impute income for spousal support purposes. This holding came from the case Philbin v. Philbin (1971) 19 Cal.App.3d 115. And yes, it is the same Philbin your thinking of as you read the case name.
In Philbin, Regis Philbin was working as a comedian in the late 1960’s, but his income had fallen dramatically since he left as Joey Bishop’s sidekick on the nationally syndicated “The Joey Bishop Show.” At the time the case was heard by the trial court, Regis’ annual income dropped from $95,000 per year to $27,000 per year (or $635,000 a year to $181,000 in 2014 dollars.) The Court of Appeal ultimately held that imputing income to Regis was not warranted since there was no bad faith on his part.
However, more recent case law suggests that the requirement of a bad faith finding for the purpose of proving earning capacity is no longer required.
It is important to note the Appellate Court has refused to impute income to a supporting spouse who voluntarily quit his job when the decision was based on a decision to follow a path of good works and services. In Marriage of Meegan (1992) 11 Cal.App.4th 156, the court upheld the trial court’s reduction of spousal support for a spouse who quit his high paying executive position to pursue a life in a monastery as a Catholic priest. The court held, the “[r]eduction [was] appropriate where Husband [was] acting in good faith and did not resign [his] job to avoid [his] spousal support obligations.” It is important to note that Meegan addressed only a spousal support order and child support was not at issue. In fact, Mr. Meegan voluntarily agreed to pay $875 per month towards his 2 adult children’s college expenses. I believe if child support were at issue in the Meegan case, the court would have made a different finding.
The Meegan case is an interesting example of a situation where the Court refused to impute income to a party who voluntarily quit their job and depressed their income. It also illustrates how very fact specific income imputation case can be. It is important to contact a qualified attorney to review your case and specific set of facts to determine whether an income imputation is appropriate.
The Court’s authority to impute income to a party is not limited to situations where the party quit their job. If one party refuses to get a job, or has been unemployed for a long period of time, the court may consider imputing earning capacity in these situations as well. In this situation, the party who wants to impute income will need to seek the assistance of an expert, called a vocational evaluator, to provide evidence of the 3 factors discussed above.
Spousal support requests, especially when they involve a request to impute earning capacity to a parent, can be difficult to navigate without the assistance of skilled family law attorney, so it is important to discuss your case with a qualified attorney.