An examination of alimony guidelines by the Iowa Supreme Court

Mary Zambreno Iowa Family Law Dickinson Law Des Moines Iowa

Posted on 02/03/2016 at 06:58 AM by Mary Zambreno

Despite this state's long-standing principles regarding the statutorily mandated alimony considerations pursuant to Iowa Code 598.21(A)(1), the Iowa Supreme Court has examined what feels like a plethora of alimony cases recently. According to Iowa Code 598.21(A)(1): 598.21A ORDERS FOR SPOUSAL SUPPORT.

  1. Criteria for determining support. Upon every judgment of annulment, dissolution, or separate maintenance, the court may grant an order requiring support payments to either party for a limited or indefinite length of time after considering all of the following:

    • The length of the marriage.

    • The age and physical and emotional health of the parties.

    • The distribution of property made pursuant to section 598.21.

    • The educational level of each party at the time of marriage and at the time the action is commenced.

    • The earning capacity of the party seeking maintenance, including educational background, training, employment skills, work experience, length of absence from the job market, responsibilities for children under either an award of custody or physical care, and the time and expense necessary to acquire sufficient education or training to enable the party to find appropriate employment.

    • The feasibility of the party seeking maintenance becoming self-supporting at a standard of living reasonably comparable to that enjoyed during the marriage, and the length of time necessary to achieve this goal.

    • The tax consequences to each party.

    • Any mutual agreement made by the parties concerning financial or service contributions by one party with the expectation of future reciprocation or compensation by the other party.

    • The provisions of an antenuptial agreement.

    • Other factors the court may determine to be relevant in an individual case.

Last year, in the case, In re Marriage of Gust, 858 N.W.2d 402 (Iowa 2015), the Court acknowledged that a few states determine spousal support awards by employing approaches that rely on arithmetic formulas.  The Court considered the advantages of employing a mathematical formula similar to our state's child support calculations, the most obvious being that the calculation of alimony becomes equally as straightforward and can be applied predictably and consistently from one court to the next. 

Currently, as the statute above reads, judges are required to consider such factors but it is in their individual discretion as to how much weight to apply to each individual relevant factor.  Here, therefore, the disadvantage in employing a mathematical formula is that it essentially removes the court's discretion in its alimony decisions, which may lead to an inequitable result for either spouse.  The Gust Court looked at recommendations from the American Law Institute and the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and noted that its resolution on the alimony issue was consistent with the spousal support award that would have resulted from an application of the AAML guidelines. 

Although proponents of the mathematical formula celebrated what appeared to be a movement towards a more predictable formulaic approach, the Gust Court also cautioned that there continues to be no legislative mandate regarding an alimony formula and until such time, the Court must continue to apply the factors in Iowa Code 598.21(A)(1). Recently, in the case, In re Marriage of Mauer, filed on January 29, 2016, the Court once again examined whether the application of a presumptive spousal support formula was equitable.  In Mauer, the parties owned substantial assets, including a successful ophthalmology practice developed by the husband. 

The parties also had four children, two of whom were still minors, and so the wife, as their primary physical custodian, would be receiving child support.  After the parties' post-trial motions, the trial court ordered the husband to pay $9100 a month in spousal support and both parties appealed, with the husband claiming it was too high and the wife claiming it was too low.  The Court of Appeals agreed with the wife and ordered the husband to pay $25,000 per month in spousal support, expressly finding that its determination was consistent with the AAML guidelines on alimony.

On review, however, the Iowa Supreme Court noted that "even if spousal support guidelines may provide a useful reality check in some cases, because they are not Iowa law, they can serve neither as the starting point for a trial court nor as the decisive factor for a reviewing court on appeal."  When application of the factors contained in section 598.21A(1) results in a spousal support calculation that is inconsistent with a spousal support calculation under any guidelines-based approach, the court's application of the statutory factors must prevail over the guidelines-based determination." 

The Supreme Court clarified that even though it wrote in a footnote in the Gust case that the outcome would have been the same, whether applying the factors in Iowa Code 598.21(A)(1) or the AAML guidelines, the factors still must be used when arriving at an alimony award.  In that regard, the Court disagreed with the findings of the appellate court in awarding the wife more alimony than necessary to maintain the standard of living she enjoyed during the marriage. 

After examining the wife's post-divorce budget, the investable preretirement assets that she was awarded in the divorce, and her reasonable employment income, the Supreme Court found that an award of $12,600 per month was an equitable spousal support award after application of the factors in 598.21(A)(1). Although the Gust case perhaps made it look like Iowa was inching closer towards a mathematical approach in determining alimony, it is clear from the Mauer case that until such time as Iowa Code 598.21(A)(1) is legislatively modified to provide for such formulas, our courts must continue to apply the factors therein.

If you have any questions regarding alimony or family law, please contact Mary Zambreno

The material in this blog is not intended, nor should it be construed or relied upon, as legal advice. Please consult with an attorney if specific legal information is needed.

Categories: Mary Zambreno, Family Law


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