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Lankford v. Lankford

Supreme Court of Delaware

March 13, 2017

LESLIE H. LANKFORD, Petitioner Below, Appellant,
v.
EVAN K. LANKFORD, JR., Respondent Below, Appellee.

          Submitted: March 8, 2017

         Court Below: Family Court of the State of Delaware File No. CN15-01377 Petition No. 15-12254

         Upon appeal from the Family Court. REVERSED and REMANDED.

          Peggy L. Ableman, Esquire, and Janine L. Faben, Esquire, McCarter & English, LLP, Wilmington, Delaware for Appellant.

          Jennifer A. Hartnett, Esquire, Hartnett & Hartnett, Hockessin, Delaware for Appellee.

          Before STRINE, Chief Justice; VALIHURA and SEITZ, Justices. [*]

          VALIHURA, Justice

         Pending before this Court is Leslie H. Lankford's ("Wife") appeal from the Family Court's August 15, 2016 Letter and Order modifying its July 1, 2016 Ancillary Order awarding alimony to Wife.[1] In the Ancillary Order, the Family Court found that Wife was dependent on her ex-husband, Evan K. Lankford, Jr. ("Husband"), and therefore entitled to alimony.[2] On reargument, the Family Court recalculated Wife's income and expenses and determined that Wife was not dependent on Husband for the purposes of alimony based solely on Wife's monthly surplus of $260.

         For the reasons set forth below, we hold that the Family Court abused its discretion by basing its dependency determination solely on one of the statutory factors provided in 13 Del. C. § 1512(c). Accordingly, we REVERSE and REMAND this matter to the Family Court for reconsideration of dependency in light of all relevant factors enumerated in Section 1512(c).

         I. RELEVANT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Husband and Wife married in 1993 after Wife immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong for the purpose of marrying Husband. Husband and Wife had three children, two of whom were minors at the time of the Ancillary Order.[3] Throughout the marriage, the family lived with Husband's mother in Husband's mother's home. Wife's testimony suggests that she was encouraged (if not actually forced) to remain as dependent as possible on Husband.[4] At a minimum, Wife's testimony suggests that she experienced a high level of dependence on Husband throughout their long marriage in a manner that limited her ability to gain real-world skills. This circumstance is relevant to the relative economic positions of the parties and Wife's ability to support herself.

         After 22 years of marriage, Husband and Wife separated on January 29, 2015 and divorced on January 6, 2016. Wife initially lived with friends until she secured an 890-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment. The minor children "do not feel safe in the apartment, " which they have stated "is not in a good area of town" and "is for 'poor people.'"[5] She has struggled to secure full-time employment due to her low skill level and difficulty with the English language. Instead, she works three part-time, entry-level jobs to "make ends meet."[6] Wife testified that she lived frugally following separation from Husband because she was "scared to death to spend every penny[.]"[7] Most of her possessions, including her furniture and vehicle, have been donated by members of her church community.

         Husband is currently unemployed and receives $330 per week in unemployment. However, he has in the past achieved annual income approaching $60, 000. During the marriage, he made "upwards of $50, 000 annually" while working for Comcast for ten years.[8] At the time the couple separated, Husband worked for the State of Delaware earning $38, 515 annually. He and the couple's two minor children continue to reside rent-free in Husband's mother's home, a brick colonial that the record suggests Husband's mother purchased for approximately $400, 000.[9]

         In the Ancillary Order, the Family Court noted that "Husband enjoys far better economic circumstances than Wife" and "is significantly the economically stronger spouse" with "the ability to maintain employment in a higher income bracket" despite his current unemployment status.[10]

         With respect to alimony, the Family Court discussed the factors provided in Section 1512(c) to determine "the amount of alimony, if any, that should be awarded" as follows:[11]

         1) The financial resources of the party seeking alimony.

         The Family Court observed that "Wife receives $1, 639 per month from her three part-time jobs and from government subsidies in the form of food stamps[, ]" and that "[d]ue to Wife's lack of formal, educational or vocational training as well as her limited skill set, the Court does not attribute Wife with any additional earning capacity."[12] It found that Wife had reasonable monthly expenses of $1, 870.23 and incurred a monthly deficit of $472. Accordingly, the Family Court found that Wife was dependent upon Husband.

         2) The time necessary and expense required to attain sufficient education or training.

         The Family Court explained that "Wife testified that she has no vocational training and currently has three entry level part-time jobs[, ]" and that "[i]t is unlikely that Wife will be able to obtain vocational skills or a higher education degree in the near future given the fact that she works more than 40 hours per week to meet her living expenses."[13]

         3) The standard of living established during the marriage.

         The Family Court found that "[t]he parties enjoyed a decent standard of living during the marriage, as Husband earned a healthy salary and the parties lived rent-free in Husband's mother's home."[14] In addition, it found that "Husband was able to acquire a significant amount of assets during the parties' marriage, and the parties have a minute amount of marital debts."[15]

         4) The duration of the marriage. Because the couple had been married for 22 years, the Family Court found that Wife was entitled to alimony for life under 13 Del. C. § 1512(d).

         5) The age, physical, and emotional conditions of the parties.

         The Family Court stated that Wife is 44 years old and Husband is 52 years old. The parties did not provide evidence of their physical or emotional conditions.

         6) Any financial or other contribution made by either party to the education, training, vocational skills, career or earning capacity of the other. The parties did not present evidence pertaining to this factor.

         7) The ability of the other party to meet his or her needs while paying alimony.

         The Family Court found:

Based on [Husband's] $17, 160 current annual income and reasonable monthly expenses of $1, 556.18, the Fin Plan shows Husband that Husband's reasonable monthly expenses exceed his monthly income and Husband has a monthly shortfall of $78.00. Given Wife's reasonable monthly expenses of $1, 870.23, the Court finds that Wife is dependent upon Husband for support. Wife, after paying her reasonable monthly expenses, has a monthly shortfall of $472. Husband, however, also has a shortfall of $78 per month after paying his reasonable monthly expenses. The parties, therefore, must share the shortfall. Pursuant to the attached alimony calculation, Husband shall pay Wife $224 per month in alimony. The Court finds that Husband has an obligation to Wife to seek and obtain full-time employment. Husband shall notify Wife if as and when such employment is obtained so that Wife may file for an adjustment to her alimony support payment.[16]

         8) Tax consequences.

         The Family Court took judicial notice that alimony is tax deductible to the payor and taxable income to the recipient.

         9) Whether either party has foregone or postponed economic, education or other employment opportunities during the course of the marriage.

         The Family Court determined that:

Wife testified that English is her second language and that she possesses no vocational skills. Additionally, Wife testified that while working part-time during the parties' marriage, she was also responsible for the child-rearing as well as the household responsibilities. Husband testified that he was the primary financial provider for most of the parties' marriage.[17]

         10) Any other factor that the court finds is just and ...


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