“For Better Or Worse” Includes Accepting the Baggage of Your Spouse’s Obligations to a Prior Family

Suppose you married someone who owes child support from a prior marriage. The support checks to the prior family go out each month, drawn on an account containing funds earned during your marriage.  Then the second relationship sours.  Can you recover an equitable share of marital funds used by your spouse to pay a pre-existing support obligation?  The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals says you cannot.

The Husband in Pounders v Pounders used marital monies to pay child support and other expenses for the children of his previous marriage. Wife knew of the payments and wrote the checks for some of them.  In the subsequent divorce action, Wife asked the court to compensate her for the joint funds used to pay Husband’s support obligation to his prior family. The trial judge awarded Wife more than $20,000 in “restitutionary alimony.”   Husband appealed.

Wife argued to the lower court that his use of marital money to pay a separate obligation unjustly enriched Husband.  She asked the court to apply the logic used in cases by Oklahoma women who helped their husbands through medical school, only to find themselves in divorce court shortly after graduation.  The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals held the cases involving professional degrees are limited to their facts.  Ms. Pounders knew her husband had ongoing obligations to his prior family when she married him. She knew the obligations would be part of her marriage to him.  Her consent during marriage prevents her from recovering when the marriage ends.

The Pounders case addresses only court-ordered obligations.  It does not address premarital debt such as student loans or credit card debt one spouse may bring into the marriage. Whether the holding of this case would extend from court-ordered obligations to general debt, or obligations not disclosed before marriage, must be decided in a future case.

by David Tracy

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