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In re Marriage of Michael

Supreme Court of Iowa

November 15, 2013

In re the MARRIAGE OF Kenneth R. MICHAEL and Melissa J. Michael Upon the Petition of Kenneth R. Michael, Appellant, and Concerning Melissa J. Michael, Appellee.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Steven H. Lytle and Ryan G. Koopmans of Nyemaster Goode, P.C., Des Moines, for appellant.

Ashley A. Tollakson of Hartung & Schroeder, LLP, Des Moines, for appellee.

HECHT, Justice.

The district court modified Kenneth Michael's obligation to pay Melissa Michael traditional alimony, concluding the payments should cease when Kenneth reaches age sixty-seven. The court's order also terminated immediately Kenneth's obligation to pay for Melissa's health insurance. The court of appeals affirmed the termination of Kenneth's health insurance obligation, but found no substantial change of circumstances justifying the termination of the alimony obligation prior to Melissa's remarriage or death. On further review, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals, modify the decision of the district court, and affirm.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Kenneth and Melissa Michael were married in April 1971. Both are now sixty-three years old, and they are the parents of two adult children who are not involved in this appeal. Melissa worked as a homemaker and stay-at-home mother for the duration of the parties' twenty-three year marriage. Melissa secured part-time work outside the home shortly after Kenneth initiated a dissolution proceeding in September 1993. She worked in various jobs during the course of the proceeding, but when the dissolution decree was entered in June 1994, she was temporarily unemployed and without any expectation of retirement or pension benefits. At the same time, Kenneth had just begun a new job at Brown & Brown— a construction company in Kansas— at an annual salary of approximately $47,000.

The decree required Kenneth remain responsible for: (1) the student loans of the children, up to $20,000 exclusive of interest for each child; (2) medical and hospital insurance for the children until they completed postsecondary education; (3) a life insurance policy for as long as he was obligated to contribute to the costs of postsecondary education for the children; (4) medical insurance coverage for Melissa; and (5) weekly spousal support payments of $450 for fifty-two weeks, followed by payment of one-third of his annual gross salary and bonuses thereafter until Melissa died, remarried, or cohabited.

Kenneth sought modification of the spousal support obligation in December 1996. By the time of the trial on the modification in November 1997, Kenneth had married his current wife, Barbara, and had established a new home with her. He had continued working at Brown & Brown and had seen his salary increase to $1500 weekly, or approximately $78,000 annually. He had earned annual bonuses of $1500, $7000, and $20,000 in 1994, 1995, and 1996, and he had consistently made his support payments based on his gross earnings including weekly wages and bonuses. After fifty-two weekly payments of $450, his obligation had been reduced briefly to $397 weekly, but the obligation thereafter increased as his salary increased. By November 1997, Kenneth was paying Melissa $500 per week plus one-third of his annual bonus. Beyond the spousal support obligation, Kenneth was also making monthly

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loan payments of approximately $440 on a debt of nearly $45,000 incurred in part for the cost of the children's postsecondary education. Barbara was then employed full-time, making approximately $10.35 per hour. Melissa had secured full-time employment with Principal Mutual Life Insurance Company at an annual salary of $17,551, exclusive of bonus and overtime.

After the 1997 trial on modification, the district court noted various changes had occurred since the entry of the original decree but nonetheless denied Kenneth's request for relief, explaining the changes were not substantial or material and would have been within the contemplation of the district court at the time of the decree. In August 1998, while an appeal of the court's order was pending, the parties stipulated to and the court entered an order modifying Kenneth's spousal support obligation, setting the amount at $480 weekly until Melissa died, remarried, or cohabited. The other provisions, including the medical insurance support provision, were neither litigated nor mentioned in the stipulated modification and remained unchanged.

Kenneth filed a second petition for modification in July 2011, requesting termination or significant reduction of his weekly support and monthly medical insurance payments to Melissa. The district court held a trial on the matter in February 2012. Although Kenneth had earned $111,399 in the 2010 calendar year at Hall Brothers, he had been laid off in early 2011 as part of a reduction in the employer's workforce.[1] After three weeks of job search, he had secured new full-time employment as a project manager with Venture Corporation at an annual salary of $85,020, or approximately $1635 per week. At the 2012 modification trial, Kenneth expressed doubt that he would receive bonuses with his new employer. He also testified that despite his receipt of steadily increasing bonuses prior to the 1998 proceeding, he had not received a substantial bonus in any of the years following the 1998 proceeding. [2] He was making payments on a credit card debt of approximately $44,000, some of which remained from the obligations allocated to him in the 1994 decree, and some of which was attributable to Kenneth's and Barbara's increasing medical expenses. Kenneth owned an individual retirement account with a value of $90,614. Barbara had remained in the same full-time employment since the 1998 modification and her annual income had approximately doubled over the years. Her gross earnings in 2010 were $43,530 and she earned $39,749 in 2011.

Melissa had remained with the same employer, now called Principal Financial Group (Principal), since the 1998 modification. By 2011, her pension benefits had vested, and she had accumulated approximately $190,000 in retirement funds. With wages of $29,201,[3] Kenneth's weekly support payments totaling $24,960 for the year, and $333 in interest and dividend income, Melissa's reportable income in 2010 was $54,494.

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Kenneth testified at the 2012 modification trial that he had growing concerns about his and Barbara's medical expenses. Kenneth and Barbara are smokers, and Kenneth is a recovering alcoholic. Kenneth had received treatment for his alcoholism once during the marriage in 1982. He suffers from degenerative spondylitis and underwent back surgery to repair two herniated discs in 2008. He entered treatment for alcoholism again voluntarily in 2009 following the back surgery. He now takes Aleve® for his back pain, but he does not currently take any prescription medications. He has also dealt with various neck and knee problems. His job as project manager at Venture Corporation requires a 160-mile roundtrip commute, longer on-the-job hours, and more daily physical exertion than his previous job. He did not testify at the trial that he was incapable of performing these tasks, but he speculated that he might not be capable for much longer, based on his physician's advice and his own perception of his condition.

Barbara testified at the trial that she suffers from inflammatory neuropathy, chronic pain, and numbness in her feet. She takes Lyrica® for the chronic pain, after having tried several other medications, each of which brought various side effects. The Lyrica® affects Barbara's vision and has contributed significantly to an increase in Barbara's and Kenneth's out-of-pocket medical expenses. The prognosis for her ...

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