Crossland v. Crossland – Eligibility for Gov’t Benefits Weighed in Divorce Case

With increasing frequency, older couples are choosing to separate after several decades together. Our Hammond divorce lawyers recognize that in some respects, these cases are simpler, mainly for the fact that young children are not part of the equation. A lack of a custody battle ratchets down the potential for contention.
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Of course, such cases do come with their own unique set of challenges. Often, these involve concerns over health insurance policies, retirement and pension accounts and government benefits (namely, Social Security).

Recently, the South Carolina Supreme Court weighed one such case, Crossland v. Crossland, where a wife’s eligibility for Social Security retirement benefits was factored into alimony payments. Although the wife was of an age at which she was entitled to collect, she chose not to do so until she had reached official retirement age. The court essentially held this did not equate to voluntary unemployment or underemployment, and the wife should not be penalized for this decision.

Here, the pair were married approximately 10 years, both having adult children from previous marriages and having no children together. The husband, 76, had been retired for three decades, and subsisted on Social Security retirement benefits, Air Force retirement benefits and veterans disability benefits. At the time of the marriage, the husband owned a home, plus two mobile homes, as well as stocks, savings accounts, certificates of deposit and mutual funds. The wife, meanwhile, was 62 at the time of the divorce. Prior to the marriage, she had received minimum wage working for a bookstore and lived with her daughter. Her husband reportedly asked her not to return to work following an extended overseas mission trip, and she complied with his request. Whatever money she did earn/obtain on a sporadic basis was deposited into the savings account.

When the two were married, the husband named his wife on all savings accounts. Soon after the separation, the husband admitted to withdrawing most of the money from those accounts, leaving each with a nominal balance in order to make it tougher for his wife to learn of the withdrawals and took other measures to make it tougher for her to trace the money.

Both parties had extensive health problems, though the wife suffered to a greater extent. The husband suffers hearing problems and had undergone surgery for heart, knee and prostate issues. The wife, following a serious auto accident, had severe back pain for which she had undergone repeated surgeries. She also suffered from breast cancer. She was unable to work as a result of her health, and noted she would lose her medical insurance in the divorce, and would have to secure new insurance at a significant monthly cost.

The court awarded the wife 40 percent of her husband’s estate, which was considerable at the time of their divorce due to the couple’s frugality. Further, the court ordered she should receive alimony in the amount of $960 monthly.

The husband appealed on the grounds that his wife’s eligibility for Social Security retirement benefits should have been considered as income, reducing the alimony payments to a significant degree. The court of appeals agreed, and modified the 60-40 division of property, and indicated it should be 70-30, in favor of the husband.

The wife appealed, arguing income shouldn’t be imputed based on eligibility for government benefits for which she hadn’t applied. The state supreme court agreed, holding that the wife’s decision to wait to file for benefits could not be equated to voluntary unemployment.

Indiana Family Law Attorney Burton A. Padove handles divorce and child custody matters throughout northern Indiana, including Gary and Hammond. Call Toll Free 877-446-5294.

Additional Resources:
Crossland v. Crossland, July 2, 2014, South Carolina Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Stanley v. Stanley – Fraudulent Conveyance of Property Pre-Divorce, June 18, 2014, Hammond Family Law Attorney Blog