Sticknet v. Stickney (99-031); 170 Vt. 547; 742 A.2d 1228
SUPREME COURT DOCKET NO. 99-031
SEPTEMBER TERM, 1999
Gail L. Stickney } APPEALED FROM:
v. } Rutland Family Court
Peter C. Stickney }
} DOCKET NO. 356-8-90Rddm
In the above-entitled cause, the Clerk will enter:
Plaintiff Gail Stickney appeals a reduction of the maintenance award
she received in 1991 following her divorce from defendant Peter Stickney.
She argues that the trial court erred in finding that there existed a
change in circumstances, pursuant to 15 V.S.A. § 758, to justify such a
reduction. She further argues that even if a change in circumstances
exists, the court abused its discretion by modifying her permanent spousal
maintenance award from $1,800 per week to $0. We affirm the trial court's
finding that a change of circumstances has occurred, but reverse and
remand its finding that the maintenance award should be reduced from $1,800
Plaintiff and defendant were married on August 26, 1966. The marriage
produced two children, both of whom have attained the age of majority. At
the beginning of the marriage, plaintiff worked as a medical secretary and
provided most of the financial support for the parties while defendant
attended medical school.
Following the birth of their first child in 1970, plaintiff stopped
working outside the home. After defendant's graduation from medical
school that same year, defendant started a practice and worked long hours
establishing it. During this time, plaintiff was the primary caregiver to
the children, managed the couple's finances and organized their social
life. In 1989, the couple began to experience financial difficulties,
brought on in part by their lavish spending and defendant's back problems
which rendered him unable to work for a period of time. In August 1990
plaintiff filed for divorce.
After the parties had separated, plaintiff received financial and
emotional support from Mark Stickney, defendant's brother. A divorce was
granted on December 20, 1991. In its decree, the family court awarded
plaintiff $1,800 in permanent maintenance, based in part on the fact that
plaintiff had been out of the work force for twenty years and had no
experience or vocational skills to enable her to support herself in a
manner approximating the standard of living established during the
In June 1992, the parties entered into a stipulation agreement
temporarily reducing defendant's maintenance obligation to $1,200 per
week. This temporary reduction took into account the fact that defendant
had filed for bankruptcy and that he had agreed to assume the parties'
significant debt owed to the I.R.S. Defendant's maintenance obligation
would return to $1,800 per week by June 1998 at the latest, according to a
schedule based on his retiring of the party's tax indebtedness.
In January 1998, defendant filed a motion to modify spousal
maintenance, alleging that his income had failed to meet projected
increases and his practice's operating expenses substantially exceeded the
court's projections anticipated in the final divorce order. He further
offered as support for a change in circumstances the fact that plaintiff
had made no effort to complete her education and obtain employment as
contemplated by the prior order, and that plaintiff's standard of living
had substantially improved because of the financial support she received
from Mark Stickney.
Following a hearing on defendant's motion in July 1998, the court
found defendant had met his burden and demonstrated a change in
circumstances which justified a downward modification of maintenance for
three reasons. First, notwithstanding the fact that defendant continued to
work at a pace equal to or exceeding his efforts at the time of the final
hearing, his net income had decreased as compared to and anticipated by
the court's 1991 order. Second, plaintiff had failed to make a good-faith
effort to complete her education and obtain gainful employment. Third,
plaintiff's financial circumstances had improved because of Mark Stickney's
financial assistance. Based on these and other findings, the court reduced
plaintiff's permanent maintenance award to $0. The court did, however,
require that defendant continue to pay off the $54,000 in maintenance
arrears he still owed plaintiff at a rate of $400 per week. Plaintiff
We note at the outset that when reviewing the factual findings of a
trial court, we view them in the light most favorable to the prevailing
party below, disregarding the effect of any modifying evidence, and we
will not set aside the findings unless they are clearly erroneous. See
Brown v. Whitcomb, 150 Vt. 106, 109, 550 A.2d 1, 3 (1988); V.R.C.P.
52(a)(2). The findings will stand if there is any reasonable and credible
evidence to support them. See Harlow v. Miller, 147 Vt. 480, 481-82, 520 A.2d 995, 997 (1986). Review of conclusions of law, however, is
nondeferential and plenary. See State v. Pollander, 167 Vt. 301, 304, 706 A.2d 1359, 1360 (1997) (questions of law reviewed de novo).
Under 15 V.S.A. § 752(a), a court is authorized to award maintenance,
either rehabilitative or permanent, when the recipient spouse lacks
sufficient income or property "to provide for his or her reasonable needs"
and "is unable to support himself or herself through appropriate
employment at the standard of living established during the marriage."
Orders of support are not final, and may be modified from time to time as
circumstances require. See vanLoon v. vanLoon, 132 Vt. 236, 242, 315 A.2d 866, 870 (1974). Section 758 authorizes a modification of a maintenance
award "upon a showing of a real, substantial, and unanticipated change of
circumstances." 15 V.S.A. § 758.
In this instance, there was evidence to support the court's finding
that a real and substantial change of defendant's financial circumstances
had taken place since 1991 such that, pursuant to 15 V.S.A. § 758,
modification of plaintiff's maintenance award was appropriate. In its 1991
order, the court estimated that defendant's income would rise at a rate of
six percent per year. At that time defendant was making approximately
$28,000 per month. However, between August 1997 and February 1998,
defendant's income varied between $23,615 and $26,225 per month. This is
significantly less than the $37,900 he should have been making according to
the trial court's projection.
In addition, plaintiff has continued to receive substantial financial
assistance from Mark Stickney that was not anticipated in the 1991 order.
However, while the court could find that plaintiff had not made a
good-faith effort to obtain gainful employment as anticipated, this cannot
serve as a basis for modification as the original maintenance award was
on plaintiff's finding employment. Discounting the court's reliance on
plaintiff's failure to seek employment, the record still supports the
court's finding of a "real, substantial, and unanticipated change of
circumstances" to justify a change in maintenance.
A court has broad discretion in determining the amount and duration of
a maintenance award, and we will set it aside only when there is no
reasonable basis to support it. See Chaker v. Chaker, 155 Vt. 20, 25, 581 A.2d 737, 740 (1990). However, this discretion is not unlimited. See
Klein v. Klein, 150 Vt. 466, 473, 555 A.2d 382, 386 (1988). Here, we
cannot conclude that the reduction of maintenance from $1,800 a week to $0
fell within the court's discretion.
Maintenance awards serve two general purposes. First, they are
intended to both correct the vast inequity of income resulting from
divorce, see Russell v. Russell, 157 Vt. 295, 299, 597 A.2d 798, 800
(1991), and equalize the standard of living of the parties for an
appropriate period of time, see Downs v. Downs, 159 Vt. 467, 469, 621 A.2d 229, 230 (1993). Second, in a long-term marriage, maintenance awards
serve to compensate the homemaker for contributions to family well-being
not otherwise recognized in the property distribution. See Klein, 150 Vt.
at 474, 555 A.2d at 387.
This compensatory aspect of maintenance reflects the reality that when
one spouse stays home and raises the children, not only does that spouse
lose future earning capacity by not being employed or by being
underemployed subject to the needs of the family, but also that he or she
increases the future earning capacity of the working spouse, who, while
enjoying family life, is free to devote productive time to career
enhancement. See Delozier v. Delozier, 161 Vt. 377, 382, 640 A.2d 55,
57-58 (1994), citing J. Krauslopf, Rehabilitative Alimony: Uses and Abuses
of Limited Duration Alimony, 21 Family L.Q. 573, 586 (1988).
The original award of maintenance was clearly intended to compensate
plaintiff for her contributions to the family. The change in defendant's
finances does not erase plaintiff's entitlement to such compensatory
maintenance. Plaintiff and defendant were married for twenty-five years.
While defendant was in medical school, plaintiff provided most of the
financial support for the parties. In addition, after the birth of their
children, plaintiff gave up working outside the home and was their primary
caregiver for many years, allowing defendant an opportunity to devote long
hours to building a successful medical practice. Plaintiff's original
maintenance award was reflective of her efforts and took into account the
length of the marriage. The court, in modifying the maintenance award from
$1,800 to $0 per week, ignored these factors and, in so doing, abused its
Reversed and remanded for proceedings consistent with this decision.
BY THE COURT:
John A. Dooley, Associate Justice
James L. Morse, Associate Justice
Denise R. Johnson, Associate Justice
Marilyn S. Skoglund, Associate Justice
Ernest W. Gibson, Associate Justice (Ret.)