Fort Collins, CO October 19, 2013
The year is not quite over but it is now safe to predict that the big change in Colorado law this year is the passage of a bill last April that was signed by the governor in May and becomes effective January 1, 2014 that provides guidelines for judges in establishing alimony or spousal maintenance in divorces. Alimony or as it is called in Colorado law -"maintenance"- is an issue that occurs when one of the divorcing parties has far more income than the other. The questions is, should the higher income former marriage partner be required to pay some of that income to the other? and for how long? In the past judges considered many factors and then made their decisions. There are many judges across the state. Therefore the maintenance awards around the state could not be expected to be uniform. This lack of uniformity was demonstrated (at least according to the story told among family law attorneys) in a seminar given for attorneys where a panel of judges was given a written hypothetical case which outlined the husband's income, the wife's income, their ages, education, etc. The judges were then asked to write a maintenance order based on those facts. According to the story one judge ordered no alimony and the others ordered various amounts up to $5,000 per month.
The new guidelines are only advisory which means that the judge deciding the case is not obligated to follow the guidelines. But the reality is that the guidelines clearly tell the judges what the legislature believes is reasonable. It is probably a safe guess that any order that strays too far from those guidelines will be appealed. That alone will force either party who wants to stray from those guidelines to not do so unless they want to invite an expensive appeal which they are more than likely to lose unless the appellate courts show great disdain for the guidelines. If the courts basically decide to ignore the guidelines, its a safe guess that the legislature will then make them mandatory.
Besides making maintenance awards more similar statewide, the other huge change that will be seen is a change in philosophy. For many judges the purpose of maintenance is to help the lower income spouse pay his/her bills after the divorce. So for example if the lower income spouse needs $1500 a month in addition to his/her income to balance the budget, it is not uncommon to see a maintenance award of $1500 to $2000 per month. Problem solved. The new guidelines take a different approach which is that the relative incomes are an asset to be divided. If a wife had an income of $200,000 per year and the husband had an income of $40,000 per year, applying the formula the husband would likely receive an award of $5000 a month even if he only needed $1500 a month to pay his bills. So, under the new law there will be income sharing, not just the ability to pay bills.
The new guidelines apply to $240,000 per year in combined income. So, for those who are in a rocky marriage and who may end up paying a large maintenance award under the new law, you probably should talk to your divorce lawyer about filing for divorce prior to January 1, 2014.
This is an interesting change in the law. If you disagree with it, talk to your legislator.