Christianson v. Christianson
671 N.W.2d 801 (2003)

  • Gerald and Cecilia were both teachers. They married, and moved around North Dakota a number of times to further Gerald’s career.
  • Eventually Gerald retired from teaching to take another job, but that fell through, instead, at 56 years old, he went to grad school.
    • While in grad school his income was very low and the couple was mostly supported by his pension and Cecilia’s teaching job.
  • After 31 years of marriage, the couple got a divorce.
  • In addition to a share of the marital property, the Trial Court determined that Cecilia was a disadvantaged spouse who could not be rehabilitated and was entitled to permanent support.
    • Basically, the Court was saying that Cecilia was too old and didn’t have the skills to work to support herself, (even though at the time she had a job!)
    • The Court deferred determining the amount of permanent support that Gerald would have to pay until after he finished his degree.
  • The Trial Court revisited the issue after Gerald finished his degree and set the level of support at $900 per month, despite the fact that Gerald did not have a job. Gerald appealed.
    • Gerald had looked for a job, but couldn’t find one.
    • The Court found that Gerald had voluntarily given up his old job, and they used an equalization-of-income approach and imputed income to Gerald based on what they thought he could be earning.
      • So basically they figured out what they thought Gerald should be earning and gave Cecilia half of that.
  • The North Dakota Supreme Court reversed.
    • The North Dakota Supreme Court found that under North Dakota law, imputation of income is not appropriate for determining spousal support.
      • Basically, there was no Statute or case law to support Cecilia’s position.
      • The Court noted that it is appropriate for determining child support, but that wasn’t an issue in this case.
    • The Court found that while equalization of income is a factor that can be used to determine spousal support, it is not the goal of spousal support. And besides, ordering Gerald to pay much more than he could afford wasn’t equalizing income.
      • The proper calculation should be based on the parties respective present needs and present ability to pay.
  • In a dissent, it was argued that Gerald’s unilateral decision to give up his job could be considered economic fault since it hurt the couple’s financial prospects. In addition it was argued that Cecilia had substantially contributed to Gerald’s new degree and should be compensated for that in some manner.