Fox Family Lawyers
Cynthia Moseley Fox
Attorney at Law
7751 Carondelet Avenue,
Suite 700
Clayton, Missouri 63105
(St. Louis)
314.727.4880

Can The Court Compel A Parent To Move In Order To Maximize His/Her Earnings?

If you are well paid, a parent, and living in Missouri, pay special attention to this column. That’s because a recent ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals seems to invite local courts to compel divorced parents to seek work anywhere in the world if doing so would maximize the payments they could make in support of their children and ex-spouses.

 

In Payne v Payne, which originated here in St. Louis County, the husband had been employed as an oil trader at the time of his divorce. Based on yearly earnings of $141,000, the court set child and spousal support payments totaling nearly $36,000/year. Unfortunately for Mr. Payne, he lost his job shortly after his divorce.

 

Four months later, the husband asked the court to reduce his support obligations contending that he had been unable to find a comparable job in his field in St. Louis or elsewhere, despite search efforts that reached across the US and overseas. To support himself, he had started an antique business, but was generating far less income than he had earned before.

 

At the hearing, both sides presented vocational experts to testify as to the husband’s employment potential. His expert stated that work as a petroleum buyer did not exist in St. Louis, but could be found in California, New York and Louisiana, In St. Louis, Mr. Payne’s best prospects would be in other fields such as accounting or purchasing, earning about $39,000 a year.

 

The wife’s expert agreed that work in his prior field could only be found elsewhere and pointed to specific oil trader positions in Illinois, Indiana and New York that provided an average salary of $89,000. If he were to remain in St. Louis, this expert identified accounting as his best option with an estimated salary of almost $44,000.

 

After hearing this testimony as well as evidence of Mr. Payne’s close relationship with his 14 year-old daughter and that it would not be in her best interests for Mr. Payne to relocate, the trial court still concluded that it was “in the best interests of the whole family that Husband do whatever is necessary including possible relocation to maximize his ability to contribute to the support of all members of his family”.

 

Accordingly, the court set Mr. Payne’s earning potential at the $89,000 his wife’s expert could be earned at an out-of-state oil trader position, and reduced his support obligations to amounts based on that salary.

 

Had this opinion prevailed, Mr. Payne would have had little choice but to expand his search to include any locale where he could land a position yielding the requisite $89K. Fortunately, the Missouri Court of Appeals intervened.

 

It overturned the lower court concluding that in this particular case the evidence did not support the trial court’s conclusion that it was “in the best interests of the whole family” for the husband to work outside St. Louis. They cited the adverse impact such a move would have on the daughter and asked the trial court to base the husband’s support payments on what he could earn locally.

 

The Appeals Court came to the right conclusion, but missed an opportunity to draw stricter limits on when a parent can be compelled to move away in order to meet the support obligations the court feels are appropriate. Although unusual, there is precedent for courts doing just that such as when a prior work history of frequent job-related travel suggests relocating to another town will not be harmful to the child or his/her relationship with that parent. I believe the courts also need to consider the impact of an involuntary move on the parent. There is more at stake than simply wringing out the maximum support payment possible from that parent.