The Tale of The Doctor’s Wife

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January 21, 2011

While a husband is attending medical school, a wife works two jobs to support the family. The Husband does not worry about money because the Wife is supporting him, he does not worry about cleaning because his Wife will do it, nor does he worry about the children because Wife is taking care of them. Husband has one sole mission: Build his career by studying hard. Husband’s mission is successful, two years into his medical practice Husband is making some money and his career is skyrocketing. But he is bored with Wife and decides to divorce her. The end? No. To prevent injustice against Wife, Oregon legislators created compensatory spousal support. This is support for the sake of equity. Husband owes a debt to Wife for helping him achieve financial success now and in the future, and he is going to pay it.

But what about The Tale of the Philosopher’s Wife? Wife works two jobs so Husband can pursue an education or career that does not enhance his earning capacity. Is Wife entitled to compensatory spousal support? Yes, according to the Oregon Court of Appeals’ December 23, 2003 decision In the Matter of the Marriage of Austin.

In Austin, Husband appeals the trial court’s award of compensatory spousal support to Wife. Though Husband admits Wife made significant contributions to Husband’s educational and occupational pursuits, Husband argues that since his earning capacity was never enhanced from these pursuits, he should not have to pay compensatory spousal support to Wife.

The Court of Appeals rejected Husband’s argument that, based on predecessor statutes, legislators intended that compensatory spousal support be awarded only if there was an enhanced earning capacity. According to the statute, compensatory support may be awarded if there is “a significant financial OR other contribution by one party to the education, training, vocational skills, career or earning capacity of the other party and when an order for compensatory spousal support is otherwise just and equitable in all of the circumstances” (emphasis added).

The magic word “or” in the statute led the justices to disregard predecessor statutes, which required enhanced earning capacity, and find that enhanced earning capacity is just one of the many situations which may justify an award of compensatory spousal support. Enhanced earning capacity is not necessary for an award of compensatory spousal support.

According to the Austin court, the spouse’s contribution must be significant, but it need only be to one of the enumerated areas of education, training, vocational skills, career, or earning capacity. Thus, in Austin, even though Husband’s earning capacity never increased, since Wife made significant contributions to his education and to his career, the award of compensatory spousal support stood.

The lesson: There are no free rides, even on a road that leads to Nowhere.