Family Law Corner: Retirement isn't what it used to be

Until In Re Marriage of Dietz, No. G040640, family law attorneys generally thought that reaching an age where one could draw on retirement benefits without penalty was one possible ground for reducing spousal support.  However, in Dietz, the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the payor of support no longer can consider the receiving spouse’s retirement age an automatic trigger for reducing support.

Eight years after a judgment was entered which divided the couple’s property (including retirement accounts) and settled spousal support, Wife asked a trial court to divide the retirement accounts, claiming that Husband was refusing to do so.  While Husband did not object to this request, he had one of his own:   he asked that spousal support be reduced or terminated on the grounds that Wife had the ability to earn income to support herself and that her income from assets (retirement accounts) was sufficient.

In ruling on Husband’s motion to reduce spousal support, the trial court noted that Wife now had a medical condition that made her unemployable, leaving Husband with his argument that her increased assets should decrease her support.  However, the trial court also found that since Wife was 62 years old and could withdraw without penalty from the retirement accounts, there were sufficient grounds to reduce her support.

The Court of Appeals disagreed.  The panel found that the parties’ stipulated judgment specifically stated that they understood that the retirement accounts might increase.  Since both Wife’s age and account value were (hopefully) going to increase, Husband did not show there had been a change in circumstances sufficient to warrant reducing support.  The Court held that the parties’ stipulated judgment clearly showed that they expected the retirement accounts to change in value.  Therefore, the fact that they did change was not a change in circumstances.  While the Court did limit its holding by noting that under certain circumstances a supported spouse reaching retirement age could justify a reduction in support, Dietz may have far-reaching effects, especially in today’s economy where requests to reduce support abound.