Posted By Thurman Arnold on Mar 24, 2010 7:41am PDT
Q. I remarried in August, 2009, and my new wife is a doctor. She has one child from her prior marriage and I have two. I am still paying my former wife alimony and child support even though the kids we have together live at our home 40% of the time. I have been hit hard by the economy and we largely depend upon my wife's medical income to make ends meet. Now my ex is threatening to take me back to court to increase my support based upon my new wife's income, while my own income is down from when the court last decided it. My new wife is upset at the idea that my ex can learn anything about the medical practice or income. What should I do?
A. If there has been a material decrease in your income since the time of your last order, you may safely file a support modification motion to lower your child support and to lower or possibly terminate your spousal support. Whether that is advisable based upon your numbers has nothing to do with your new mate's income, and should not cause you to hesitate - but again, it does depend on the actual respective numbers between you and Wife 1, which you did not provide me. You also need not worry about W1 filing a motion to increase (you can't stop her, but she will not win based on W2's earnings). Maybe you should give her this link so she will think twice.
California law is quite clear that new mate income cannot generally be considered against you in ordering or modifying child or spousal support. The controlling California Family statute is section 4057.5.
In the normal situation, Family Code section 4057.5 leaves the Court no discretion to consider your new wife's earnings, period. You do not need to report those earnings on your FL-150 (Income and Expense Declaration). This is a statement of California legislative policy effective in 1993 when this section was added to the Family Code. This is true for both spousal and child support.
However, section 4057.5 does contain an exception for the "extraordinary case" which the statute makes clear is intended to address situations where "where excluding that income would lead to extreme and severe hardship to any child subject to the child support award" or where "a parent. voluntarily or intentionally quits work or reduces income, or who intentionally remains unemployed or underemployed and relies on a subsequent spouse's income." Even if the court were to find a severe hardship on the children of marriage number one, it would be required not to impose a severe hardship on your wife's child by reallocating her income to you for purposes of supporting your two children.
In practice, so far, Courts almost never find facts sufficient overcome this clear statutory prohibition. So far there is no published California appellate decision defining these extraordinary circumstances. No doubt one day someone will so abuse this protection and hide behind it that we will get a reported decision that fleshs out how bad someone needs to behave before the protection is lost. But "extraordinary" means really extraordinary. In the average case, your new Wife has nothing to be concerned about.
With regard to attorneys fee awards, however,
there is authority for an argument that new mate income may be considered in granting or denying an attorney fee request, but the odds are against a judge doing that.
Incidentally, this section also applies to income from nonmarital partners as well as new spouses. In one reported case (IRMO Loh), a trial court was reversed for inceasing dad's child support obligation after the mother produced photos of the father's "lifetyle" to show imputed nontaxable income in the form of his new girlfriend's contributions to him, since she paid for all his toys.
The new mate question is a subset of the "imputed income" situations where a father or mother may quit work or reduce hours because they are relying on their new mate to contribute the difference. That is not likely going to be an extraordinary case, but W1 can separately seek to impute income to you on the basis that you have a higher earning capacity than you are exercising. Earning capacity and imputed income is a blog for another day. Also, I will mention here that another argument exists in favor of W1 that has nothing to do with the right to obtain the records or income of W2: Equalizing the lifestyle's of the two households where yours is rich and grandiose and W1 is impoverished (an extreme example) pursuant to FC section 4057(b)(4).
The tax returns are privileged as they relate to your new wife's medical practice. For instance, if she is a medical corporation (which I recommend be set up), she will almost never be forced to divulge those records. Even as to your joint returns, you may be entitled to redact the information concerning your new spouse or have the Court review them in camera (meaning they are not turned over to the other side). Your former mate is entitled to see your side of the tax returns, however, and they are not insulated from scrutiny simply because you filed joint with the Doctor Wife. If you don't file jointly, your former wife will almost certainly never get her hands on your new wife's Married Filing Separately (MFS) returns. Structuring things this way may or may not be advisable and you should consult a tax accountant.
An interesting twist here is that because you marry a higher, wealthy earner, your taxes actually increase because under federal IRS (and the California FTB), you are responsible for one-half of your new mate's income - and this is true even if you don't file jointly. One case (County of Tulare vs. Campbell) has held that this additional tax you become liable for can form the basis for a reduction in your support because you have less net income available for support after the tax hit is deducted. Hence, based on these tax consequences you may have an additional argument for decreased support - although a Court may try to deny you some discretionary offset to even the score since this feels a bit unfair to the spouse who is primarily supporting the children and so lessen the downward modification.
The take-away: So long as you are not playing games, have not intentionally reduced your income by relying upon your new mate's income, and there is no really extraordinary difference in the two households, your new wife's income is just not relevant and so it is protected.