Justices reverse spousal support ruling

By Kyla Asbury | Apr 14, 2015

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that a state court erred in reversing an order for spousal support.

Carol Elaine Warren appealed an order of the Webster Circuit Court reversing a decision of the Webster Family Court concerning the amount and duration of spousal support she was awarded in her divorce from Todd E. Garland.

In the appeal, Warren contended that the circuit court erred by finding that a future increase in her spousal support award was impermissible and that such award should terminate in three years.

"Upon consideration of the parties' briefs and oral arguments, the submitted record, and the pertinent authorities, we find that the circuit court erred in modifying the spousal support award granted to Ms. Warren by the family court," the April 10 W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals opinion states. "Accordingly, the final order is reversed, and this case is remanded with directions that the family court order be reinstated."

Justice Allen Loughry delivered the majority opinion. Chief Justice Margaret Workman concurred and issued her own, separate opinion.

The parties were married on Feb. 14, 1984 and separated on Feb. 17, 2012. After the parties separated, Warren's mental health began to deteriorate due solely to the fact that her marriage was ending and she suffered from severe depression, began to have suicidal ideation and, as a result, was admitted to a psychiatric hospital on three separate occasions between April 2012 and August 2012.

Because of her depression, Warren was unable to continue her employment with Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, where she worked as a project coordinator and lobbyist, and she voluntarily elected to collect early social security benefits at the age of 62.

Garland filed a petition for divorce on June 21, 2012, and, at a temporary hearing on Sept. 20, 2012, was ordered to pay Warren spousal support in the amount of $350 per month beginning Oct. 1, 2012.

On Jan. 24, 2013, the divorce order was entered that incorporated the parties' agreement on all issues except for spousal support and attorneys' fees. The parties agreed to distribution of their marital assets that was close to 50/50 with Garland assuming 60 to 65 percent of the marital dept and being compensated as a result with a greater share of the marital property, including the debt-free marital home and retirement benefits.

Warren sought spousal support and Garland argued that Warren should return to work, as she had retired prematurely.

At the final evidentiary hearing, Warren called her treating psychologist, Dr. Lisa Ryan, and former boss, Janet Keating, as witnesses. Ryan testified that Warren had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and was unable to return to work because of her mental health issues.

Keating testified that she had noticed the physical and emotional changes in Warren when the parties separated and that she could not rehire Warren, as she had employed someone else in her position. She also stated that in her opinion, Warren was not mental able to return to work.

On March 5, 2013, the family court entered an order awarding spousal support to Warren in the amount of $350 per month until the age of 65, and at 65, she would begin to receive $650 per month until Garland reached the age of 67, at which time the spousal support should terminate.

The family court also ordered Garland to pay her attorney fees in the amount of $3,600 at a rate of $100 per month until the amount was paid in full. Garland appealed the family court's decision to Webster Circuit Court.

On July 11, 2013, the circuit court entered an order reversing the decision of the family court and concluded that the increase in spousal support was improper and that there should not be an increase. Warren then filed her appeal.

"Given the extensive findings made by the family court pursuant to West Virginia code ... there was no basis for the circuit court to conclude that the family court’s decision with respect to the amount and duration of the spousal support award was arbitrary and capricious," the majority opinion states. "As we have explained, '[u]nder the clearly erroneous standard, if the findings of fact and the inferences drawn by a family [court judge] are supported by substantial evidence, such findings and inferences may not be overturned even if a circuit court may be inclined to make different findings or draw contrary inferences.'"

The court also found that the circuit court erred by setting aside and vacating the spousal support award effective the first day of the month following Warren's 65th birthday.

The final order of the Webster Circuit Court was reversed with respect to the award of spousal support, and the case was remanded for reinstatement of the March 5, 2013, order of the Webster Family Court with respect to the amount and duration of the spousal support award granted to Warren.

In her concurring opinion, Workman stated that she concurred with the result reached by the  majority regarding the amount and duration of spousal support to  Warren.

"In this case, the family court articulated fact-based reasons to justify the increase in spousal support that were tailored to the needs and circumstances of the parties: in three years, Mr. Garland would substantially reduce the marital credit card indebtedness and abolish his attorney fee obligations," her opinion states. "This finding was in no way speculative. In fact, had we affirmed the circuit court’s order, Ms. Warren would be unjustly penalized for taking less in spousal support temporarily so that Mr. Garland could pay off this marital debt."

In the instant case, the family court's spousal support award to Warren was based on Garland’s increased ability to pay a higher amount in three years when his attorney fee obligation was paid in full and his marital credit card payment was reduced or paid off.

Warren was represented by Brittany Ranson Stonestreet of Lyne Ranson Law Offices PLLC.

Garland was represented by James Wilson Douglas and Jaren S. Frame of James Wilson Douglas LC.

W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 14-0429

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