Peterson v. Peterson – Failure to Pay Spousal Support

Spousal support, once a critical aspect of any divorce case, has waned in recent years as both spouses often work outside the home and contribute somewhat equally to the financial stability of the household. Where husbands once were always required to pay spousal support – and often for many years after the divorce – it’s not so common these days. When it is approved, it’s often for a finite period of time. 

Indiana Code 31-15-7-2 specifies the circumstances under which spousal support can be awarded in Indiana. Most often, spousal support is awarded during the provisional period of the divorce, which is after the filing for divorce but prior to its finalization. However, it may also be awarded when:

One spouse lacks sufficient property to meet his or her needs and/or the spouse is the custodian of a child whose physical or mental incapacity requires the custodian to forego employment. The court will consider the educational level of each spouse, whether family responsibilities resulted in an interruption in education/training or employment, the earning capacity of each spouse, and the time and expense needed for the lesser-earning spouse to acquire sufficient education or training.

Generally, spousal support in Indiana doesn’t exceed three years. However, once it has been ordered, the spouse who is required to pay it must abide by the court’s orders. Failure to do so will result in sanctions if he or she is found in contempt of court. In some cases, even inability to pay is no excuse.

An example recently came before the North Dakota Supreme Court in the case of Peterson v. Peterson. Although this was an out-of-state case, the same basic principles apply.

According to court records, Husband and Wife divorced in 1996, at which time the court ruled the husband was to pay the wife $1,500 each month in spousal support until the wife either remarried or died.

This went on for nearly two decades. Then, in early 2015, Wife petitioned the court to find her ex-husband in contempt for failing to pay spousal support. She alleged he had not done so since the fall of 2014. Husband responded with a petition for termination of spousal support obligations, or at least a modification. The trial court denied his request, found him in contempt, and ordered him to make back payments plus reimburse his ex-wife for attorney fees.

Husband appealed, arguing the district court erred. He argued that he should not be held in contempt because he was unable to make the support payments.

The state supreme court noted that when a party is unable to comply with a court order, it is not acceptable to simply ignore it until the person owed the support takes action for contempt. Even if a court’s order is erroneous, the parties are bound to it until it is reversed, modified, or set aside on appeal. If the husband in this case believed he was unable to pay the court-ordered support, the action he should have taken was to immediately move the court to abolish or reduce the court-ordered support based on a material change in circumstances. It is not acceptable, to simply stop making support payments, as Husband did here.

In this case, although it was disputed, the court did find that the husband had sufficient income – both direct and indirect – to continue to meet his court-ordered obligation.

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:

Peterson v. Peterson, July 2016, North Dakota Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Luttrell v. Cucco – Same-Sex Couple Cohabitation Affects Spousal Support Payments, May 11, 2016, Gary Divorce Lawyer Blog

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