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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Crossland v. Crossland - Eligibility for Government Benefits Not a Factor in Alimony

Researchers recently concluded that divorce rates among those 50 and older doubled between 1990 and 2010. At an age where people expect to be retired and traveling, they are suddenly grappling with the unexpected prospect of being alone.

New York City divorce attorneys recognize the challenges for these couples varies significantly from the issues facing younger-married couples. There may not be child custody to contend with, for example, but matters regarding health insurance and retirement accounts are of the utmost importance. Alimony too may be considered a significant concern, particularly when one spouse chose to forgo a career in order to contribute more to the home.

This was a point of contention in the recent divorce case of Crossland v. Crossland, weighed by the South Carolina Supreme Court. Here, the wife, with extensive health problems, had been awarded alimony and 40 percent of the marital estate. A key point of contention on appeal was whether the wife's eligibility to receive Social Security retirement benefits (which she was not collecting) should have been factored into the determination of how much she should receive.

The husband argued her choice to wait until she was 65 to collect federal benefits amounted to voluntary unemployment. While the lower courts agreed, the state supreme court reversed.

This is an important ruling in that it establishes people may not be penalized for choosing to wait to collect public benefits. By doing so, they stand to collect a greater amount. This does not, the court ruled, amount to voluntary unemployment that would ordinarily result in a reduction of stake in the marital estate. 

According to court records, the pair was married four 10 years before they separated and divorced. They did not share any children, and at the time of divorce, in 2010, the husband was 76 and the wife was 62. Both had health problems, though the wife to a greater degree. When they were married, the husband asked the wife not to return to her minimum wage job, and she agreed.

A retired Air Force veteran, he subsisted on veteran's disability benefits, social security benefits and Air Force retirement benefits. He owned a home, stocks, savings accounts and property. When they married, he put her name on all savings accounts. (He later removed it when the divorce was pending, in violation of the law.)

 The court found it was clear the wife was not expected to contribute financially to the marital home, and that her deteriorating condition meant that she could no longer do so even if she wished. For this reason, the court divided the property equitably and granted her roughly $1,000 a month in alimony.

The husband appealed on the grounds that the wife, at 62, was technically eligible to receive Social Security retirement benefits, and that this should have been factored into the alimony. The wife argued she was waiting to collect until she turned 65, at which time she would receive a higher level of benefits.

The trial court sided with the husband, modifying the divorce settlement to a 70-30 division in favor of the husband.

The state supreme court, however, reversed. While Social Security benefits that are being received are unquestionably eligible for consideration in a divorce settlement, the wife in this case hadn't even filed to collect. The court found that while it's within the court's discretion to consider in some cases whether eligibility for benefits should be factored into a divorce settlement, it's not a requirement. In this case, the court ruled, it was improper.

If you are contemplating a divorce in New York City, call our offices at (718) 864-2011.

Additional Resources:

Crossland v. Crossland, July 2, 2014, South Carolina Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Shielding Yourself From Your Deceased Ex-Spouse's Debt, July 8, 2014, New York City Divorce Lawyer Blog

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