You may be familiar with the expression, “keeping up with the Joneses,” or the more modern spin, “keeping up with the Kardashians;” either way the underlying concept is that we feel the need to financially and socially keep pace with our peers, our friends, and our neighbors. In this age of social media, we see all of the stuff and experiences that those around us are enjoying. We want to remain socially relevant and we do not want to deprive our children of the best education, technology, and activities. However, trying to keep up with the Joneses can often result in unintended circumstances when dealing with a divorce.
The marital lifestyle is the standard of living that the parties enjoyed during the marriage. It concerns questions such as how often the parties dined out; how frequently and where did the parties vacation; what kind of cars did the parties drive, etc. The marital lifestyle is the cornerstone of the Court’s spousal support analysis, as alimony is intended to permit the supported spouse to live a lifestyle reasonably comparable to the standard of living established during the marriage. However, the 2014 amendment to the alimony statute explicitly established that neither party has a greater entitlement to the marital lifestyle. Therefore, the Court must determine an alimony award that will ensure that both parties can maintain a reasonably comparable marital lifestyle, or as close to that lifestyle as possible. In evaluating the marital lifestyle, the Court will consider the question both from the income side and the expense side. The Court will determine how much income is available to the respective parties for the payment of his or her support. It will also evaluate the parties’ expenses to determine the need for support.
Unfortunately, when a couple goes through a divorce, it often becomes apparent that the pressure to keep up with the Joneses has caused them to incur significant debt. The parties could not really afford the lifestyle they were living, and the lifestyle was only being funded through debt. Living this artificially inflated lifestyle poses risks to both the supported spouse and the supporting spouse. It’s possible that a Court may not make the connection between the family’s elevated lifestyle and the substantial debt that the family is carrying and thus, order the supporting spouse to pay an alimony award that he or she does not actually have the ability to pay and leading to chronic enforcement issues. It’s also equally possible that a Court may clearly see that there is not enough income to pay for the parties’ debt fueled lifestyle going forward and will impose a drastic and immediate lifestyle reduction on the supported spouse or require the parties to start liquidating assets to combat the debt. Either extreme may feel wholly inequitable to one or both of the parties.
Sometimes a couple can afford to keep with the Joneses, but they can only do so by working extra-long hours or working two jobs. While this may seem worth it when the family remains intact and you get to stay in the big house and let the children participate in the expensive sports and hobbies. This extra work also establishes a marital lifestyle that the Court will try to maintain if the couple divorces. This means that a Court may base its support award upon the assumption that the parties will continue to earn this extra income, which will in turn essentially require the parties to continue to work at this exhausting or extraordinary pace.
So while it may be tempting to want to keep up the Jonses, you will minimize the risk of an unbalanced and unfair support arrangement if your marital lifestyle accurately reflects your reasonable income.