United States: Finding Of Dependency In An Alimony Analysis May Not Be Based On Speculation

Last Updated: May 5 2015
Article by Leslie B. Spoltore

The case of Smart v. Smart, Del. Supr. No. 433, 2014, April 6, 2015, presented several issues on appeal including a challenge to the Family Court's determination that Ms. Smart is dependent and therefore entitled to alimony.

The Trial

As the proponent of a claim for alimony it was Ms. Smart's burden to prove her dependency – her inability to support herself through appropriate employment (or other resources).  At the hearing Ms. Smart was employed as a part-time sales clerk earning $9,000 per year.  In support of her claim for alimony, Ms. Smart testified that she suffered from chronic back pain due to a prior car accident.  She also testified that she had been diagnosed with PTSD and ADHD, though she was not treating these conditions due to the expense associated with treatment.  Ms. Smart did not provide any documentation regarding her diagnosis and she did not present the testimony of a medical professional.  When asked if her medical issues impacted her ability to work, Ms. Smart testified, "I don't allow it to, no.  No, I go no matter what, so no it does not."  Id. at 7.

Arguing against the claim, Mr. Smart testified that he was aware of her back issue, but did not know anything regarding the other diagnosis.  He asserted that Ms. Smart is capable of earning more than her part-time work provided.

Ultimately, the Family Court concluded that Ms. Smart was in fact dependent.  In reaching this conclusion, the Court found that, "While the testimony on [her] mental health was not as complete as it could have been, [the Family Court is] satisfied that [her] current untreated mental health issues are a factor in her not being able to be more gainfully employed." Id. at 9.  Having found Ms. Smart to be dependent, the Court ordered Mr. Smart to pay alimony of $1,055 per month.

The Appeal

In his appeal to the Delaware Supreme Court, Ms. Smart argued the Family Court erred in finding Ms. Smart to be dependent because Ms. Smart did not meet her burden of proving that she is unable to maintain full-time employment.  The Supreme Court agreed that the evidence in the record was insufficient to support the Family Court's finding.  Specifically, the Supreme Court held that "[a]n award of alimony may not be based on speculation or conjecture" and concluded that [a]lthough [Ms. Smart] may indeed be dependent on [Mr. Smart] for support, we find the Family Court's conclusion that [Ms. Smart's] 'mental health issues pose an obstacle to her obtaining ... full-time employment' to be unsupported by the record."  Id. at 11.  The case has been remanded to the Family Court for further proceedings.

The decision may be found here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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