Marriage and Divorce – Part 3

An Alabama court ruled that a pastor who lost his job because he remarried without his church’s approval was not entitled to a reduction in his child support obligation.

Church Law and Tax 2005-03-01

Marriage and divorce – Part 3

Key point. Child support obligations may be modified due to changed circumstances, but in some states this is only possible if the changed circumstances were not “voluntary.”

* An Alabama court ruled that a pastor who lost his job because he remarried without his church’s approval was not entitled to a reduction in his child support obligation because his loss of income was “voluntary.” A pastor was married and had three minor children. His wife filed for divorce, and the couple reached a settlement requiring the pastor to provide specified alimony and child support. These amounts were based on the pastor’s annual income of $92,000, which consisted of salary ($60,000), housing allowance ($22,000), a car, life insurance, medical insurance, and retirement contributions.

The pastor met and fell in love with a woman shortly after the divorce was finalized. He was planning to marry the woman when he was approached by an elder from the church who asked him to delay the marriage so that the church council could meet and discuss the remarriage. The pastor conceded that it was “possible” his second marriage would have been approved by the church council if he had delayed his marriage until the next council meeting, but he testified that he did not want to live “in sin” with the woman, and, therefore, he married her a few months before the meeting took place.

The pastor did not believe that he would lose his job if he remarried (there were two men working for the church who were divorced). So, he married his second wife but kept his marriage a secret. When he informed the church of his second marriage he was asked to resign because he had “kept his remarriage a secret.” The pastor obtained a real estate license and worked as a clerk in a department store. His income dropped significantly in his new jobs, and he was not able to make his alimony and child support payments. His second wife also lost her job at the same time.

The pastor’s first wife sued him to compel him to honor the alimony and child support obligations. He asked the court to modify his obligations because of a “material change of circumstances.” A trial court acknowledged that the pastor’s income had declined sharply, but refused to modify his support obligations because the drop in income was due to his “voluntary action” in marrying his second wife without waiting for the church council to meet. The pastor appealed.

A state appeals court noted that “potential income” can be “imputed” to a spouse in computing a child support obligation if the spouse is “voluntarily unemployed or underemployed.” It noted that the church, upon learning that the pastor intended to remarry, requested that he not schedule his wedding until after the church council could discuss the matter, and that the pastor made a “deliberate decision not to follow his employer’s request.” Instead, he hid his remarriage from the church. The court concluded, “Had the pastor waited to remarry, as the church officials had requested, and the church had still asked him to resign, this court might have reached a different result in this case. However, he did not do so. He chose the timing of his marriage knowing that it might cost him his job and his ability to support his three children. Thus, there is evidence in the record that tends to support a conclusion that the pastor’s actions that resulted in his underemployment were voluntary. Because the evidence supports the determination that the pastor was voluntarily underemployed, we must affirm the trial court’s decision to impute income to him.” Van Houten v. Van Houten, 2004 WL 406235 (Ala. App. 2004).

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