A Virginia court ruled that a reduction in a pastor's salary was not sufficient grounds to reduce his alimony payments to a former spouse. A pastor and his wife were divorced in 2007. The final divorce decree awarded the wife $4,000 per month in spousal support and ordered the husband to pay $43,318 to his wife for attorney's fees. A few weeks after the entry of the parties' final decree, the church's board of directors voted to cut the husband's salary in half, from $80,000 to $40,000, and reduce his housing allowance from $25,000 to $20,000.
As a result, the husband unilaterally reduced his spousal support payment to $500 per month. He later filed a motion to reduce his spousal support obligation pursuant to a state law granting courts the authority to "increase, decrease, or terminate the amount or duration of any spousal support [award] as the circumstances may make proper." The husband pointed out that the church's board of directors decided to reduce his income by half based on changes in the economy and revenues earned. He claimed that he was not involved in the church's decision to reduce his income and that he was not present at the meeting. However, the trial court held that the "evidence which he [husband], and others on his behalf, presented strains credibility. We do not find it a coincidence that the vote of the church board of directors to do this occurred just a few weeks after the entry of the final decree of divorce in this case." The trial court found that the husband's reduction in income was "voluntary and orchestrated by him," and on this basis rejected his motion to reduce his monthly support obligation.
A state appeals court affirmed the trial court's ruling, noting that "a trial court has broad discretion in awarding spousal support, and its ruling will not be overturned unless there is an abuse of discretion." It concluded: "The trial court found the timing suspect, especially since the parties' final decree was entered on November 27, 2007; the church board of directors reduced husband's income on December 19, 2007; and husband reduced his monthly payments in January 2008. The trial court also questioned whether husband was involved in the reduction of his income. Based on the facts and circumstances, the trial court did not abuse its discretion …." 2009 WL 2496324 (Va. App. 2009).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, November/December 2010.