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In re Marriage of Sisson

Supreme Court of Iowa

March 7, 2014

In re The MARRIAGE OF Travis SISSON and Alfronia Sisson. Upon the Petition of Travis Sisson, Appellant, and Concerning Alfronia Sisson, Appellee.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Andrew B. Howie of Hudson, Mallaney, Shindler & Anderson, P.C., West Des Moines, for appellant.

Eric G. Borseth of Borseth Law Office, Altoona, for appellee.

CADY, Chief Justice.

In this appeal and cross-appeal from an order by the district court that modified the spousal support terms of a decree for dissolution of marriage, we primarily consider the sufficiency of a request by a former spouse, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer after the divorce, to modify the spousal support provisions of the decree to increase the amount and duration of support. On our review, we vacate the decision of the court of appeals and affirm the order of the district court as modified. We conclude a change in circumstances was established to support a modification of spousal support, and we resolve all other issues presented for review.

I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

Travis Sisson and Alfronia Sisson dissolved their eleven-year marriage in 2008. Travis was thirty-six years old and Alfronia was forty-seven years old. They had one child, who was ten years old at the time of the divorce.

Travis was a licensed public accountant and was registered to sell securities. He owned and operated an accounting, tax, and financial services practice in West Des Moines. At the time of the divorce, his earnings were around $226,000. Alfronia had enjoyed a career in retail management, but did not work outside the home after their daughter was born. Her annual earnings when she left the workforce were around $40,000. She worked for Younkers as a manager.

A stipulated decree gave Travis and Alfronia joint legal custody and shared physical care of their daughter. The decree directed Travis to pay monthly child support to Alfronia of $1020. Travis was also obligated to pay spousal support of $1500 for eighteen months and then $500 per month for the next seventy-four months. The alimony was to terminate along with the child support around the time their daughter completed high school.

Alfronia planned to enroll in a cosmetology school after the divorce and start a career as a cosmetologist. Travis left the marriage with a net worth of $364,000, and Alfronia had a net worth of $440,000. In short, the decree contemplated a life after divorce for Travis and Alfronia that would permit both of them to move forward as active and involved parents and give Alfronia the opportunity to begin a new career and become self-supporting.

Shortly after the divorce, Alfronia developed tremors in her hands. The most immediate outcome of this development was to alter her employment plans. Alfronia decided not to enroll in cosmetology school and, instead, returned to her employment with Younkers. However, she was hired as an assistant sales manager and was paid an hourly wage of $11.40.

The hand tremors experienced by Alfronia were only a precursor to the suffocating news that arrived in October 2009. Alfronia was diagnosed with GK Multiple Myeloma— an incurable blood cancer. Her medical doctors eventually determined she was in stage 1 of the disease. The median survival time for a person with her diagnosis is between five and seven years from the time of diagnosis. This means that fifty percent of patients will succumb to the disease in five to seven years, while fifty percent of the patients will survive

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beyond five to seven years. Alfronia has pursued recommended treatment to extend her life, and her physician believes Alfronia may fall within the upper half of this statistical norm, which means her life expectancy from the date of diagnosis in late 2009 would be five to seven years or more.

Despite her medical condition, Alfronia has been able to continue her employment, with some limitations. Her doctor believes Alfronia will be able to maintain relatively good health for four or five years and continue to work until the last year of her life. At that point, the disorder will not allow her to function well enough to maintain employment. However, there was no indication of the type or cost of care Alfronia will require after she is unable to work. The disorder is known to lead to kidney failure, infections, stroke, and bleeding problems, among other ailments. Alfronia will also experience fatigue.

The disease has not yet been an overriding impediment in her role as a primary caregiver, although Alfronia and Travis have had some problems and disputes as joint caretakers. While their daughter has struggled in school at times, her difficulties have more likely been related to the divorce of her parents than her mother's medical condition. Travis also remarried on January 1, 2010. This development has contributed to some of Alfronia's problems as a joint caretaker.

In April 2011, Travis initiated an action to modify the divorce decree. He sought sole physical care of their daughter and a reduction of child support. Alfronia resisted the request and responded with her own claim for modification. She asked to increase the amount and duration of alimony and to increase the amount of child support.

At the time of the modification hearing in 2012, the net worth of each party was approximately $435,000. The majority of Alfronia's assets consisted of a home and various financial accounts. Her annual income continued to be around $18,000. Her net monthly wages were $1134, and she continued to receive monthly child support of $1020 and spousal support of $500. Her monthly expenses were around $5100, which included $785 for health insurance, medicine, and medical-related expenses. Under her health insurance plan, the maximum annual noncovered medical expenses she could be required to pay, considering deductibles and noncovered expenses under the policy, was $4475. Additionally, she incurs a $45 copay requirement for every doctor visit. Under her current treatment regimen, this requirement adds $1080 to her annual medical expenses. Alfronia must see her doctor twice each week. Some of her monthly expenses set out in her financial affidavit were for the care of their daughter and included items such as clothing, school activities, allowances, and orthodontic treatment.

The home owned by Alfronia is valued at $345,000. It is encumbered by a note and mortgage of $205,000. She has no lien on her automobile, but expects to replace the vehicle with a new car in the near future. Her other major assets are an Individual ...

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