This opinion will be unpublished and

may not be cited except as provided by

Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (2002).







Patrick Martin Wolfe-Rager, petitioner,


Marilyn Joy Rager,


Filed April 13, 2004


Wright, Judge


St. Louis County District Court

File No. F9-99-100295



William E. Maxwell, Legal Aid Service, 820 North Ninth Street, Suite 150, Virginia, MN  55792 (for appellant)


Andrew J. Borland, Sellman Law Office, 1907 Third Avenue East, P.O. Box 37, Hibbing, MN  55746 (for respondent)



            Considered and decided by Schumacher, Presiding Judge; Willis, Judge; and Wright, Judge.




U N P U B L I S H E D  O P I N I O N




            Appellant-wife challenges the district court’s reduction of her permanent spousal-maintenance award, arguing that the district court abused its discretion in finding that she voluntarily limited her income, which served as the basis for the district court’s determination that the original stipulated maintenance award is unreasonable and unfair.  Our review establishes that the district court’s determination is not supported by facts in the record.  We reverse.



The marriage of appellant-wife Marilyn J. Rager and respondent-husband Patrick M. Wolfe-Rager was dissolved by decree on September 30, 1999.  The decree ordered husband to pay (1) monthly child support in the amount of $750 until the parties’ minor child turned 18 or became emancipated and (2) monthly permanent spousal maintenance in the amount of $450.  Pursuant to the parties’ stipulation, the decree also ordered an increase to $600 in monthly permanent spousal maintenance when the child-support payments ceased.  Husband’s net monthly income was $3,000 at the time of the decree.  Wife did not work during the marriage and has not worked since the dissolution.  In June 2000, husband terminated his employment with LTV Steel Mining (LTV) in anticipation of the plant closing.  He found employment in November 2000 at Cook Community Hospital at a lower wage than he earned at LTV.

            In July 2002, husband’s child-support obligation ceased, and his monthly spousal- maintenance obligation increased to $600, in accordance with the terms of the decree.  In May 2003, husband moved to reduce his spousal-maintenance obligation based on his decreased earnings.  The district court found husband’s net monthly income at the time of the motion to be $2,169.28 and husband’s reasonable monthly expenses to be $1,650. 

            Wife’s sole income is her spousal maintenance.  The district court found that wife’s monthly budget is $771,[1] which does not include expenses attributable to the parties’ adult daughter, who lives with wife.  The district court also found that the parties’ daughter could contribute to the monthly household expenses and that wife’s significant medical conditions limit her ability to become employed.  Based on these findings, the district court determined that wife has voluntarily limited her income by (1) failing to receive a contribution to the household expenses from the parties’ daughter; and (2) failing to seek Social Security or other benefits.  Finding a substantial decrease in husband’s income “from the time of the parties[’] divorce decree in 1999 which render[s] the original maintenance awarded unreasonable and unfair,” the district court reduced husband’s monthly spousal-maintenance obligation from $600 to $500.  This appeal followed.



An appellate court will not reverse a district court’s decision to modify maintenance absent an abuse of discretion.  Erlandson v. Erlandson, 318 N.W.2d 36, 38 (Minn. 1982).  An abuse of discretion arises when the district court resolves the matter in a manner that is against logic and the facts in the record.  Rutten v. Rutten, 347 N.W.2d 47, 50 (Minn. 1984).

A district court may modify spousal maintenance upon a showing that a substantial decrease in a party’s earnings makes the terms of the original decree unreasonable and unfair.  Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(a) (2002).  When setting the level of spousal maintenance, the district court balances the needs of the spouse receiving maintenance against the financial conditions of the spouse providing maintenance.  Erlandson, 318 N.W.2d at 39-40.  When spousal maintenance has been ordered pursuant to a stipulation, the provisions of the stipulation establish the “baseline circumstances against which claims of substantial change are evaluated.”  Hecker v. Hecker, 568 N.W.2d 705, 709 (Minn. 1997).  The party seeking modification of spousal maintenance has the burden of showing that (1) a substantial change in circumstances has occurred; and (2) the substantial change makes the existing spousal-maintenance award unreasonable and unfair.  Id.

Consistent with the decrease in husband’s net monthly income from $3,000 in 1999 to $2,169.28 in 2003, wife does not contest the existence of the substantial change in circumstances required by Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(a)(1).  Rather, wife contests the district court’s conclusion that the second prong has been met, arguing that reversal of the spousal-maintenance modification is warranted because the district court abused its discretion in finding that she voluntarily limited her income by (1) not receiving a contribution from the parties’ daughter for household expenses; and (2) not applying for Social Security benefits.

            Thus, we focus our analysis on whether the district court’s ruling that the substantial change in husband’s income makes the terms of the original spousal maintenance award unreasonable and unfair.  “On a motion for modification of maintenance . . . the court shall apply, in addition to all other relevant factors, the factors for an award of maintenance under section 518.552 that exist at the time of the motion.”  Minn. Stat. § 518.64, subd. 2(c) (2002).  These factors include the inability of the spouse seeking maintenance to provide adequate self-support through appropriate employment, the financial resources of the spouse seeking maintenance, the party’s ability to meet needs independently, the age and physical and emotional condition of the spouse seeking maintenance, and the ability of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought to meet his or her needs while meeting those of the spouse seeking maintenance.  See Minn. Stat. § 518.552, subds. 1, 2 (2002).

            A review of wife’s monthly expenses demonstrates that she was unable to meet her needs independently prior to the reduction in spousal maintenance.  The record establishes that wife’s monthly expenses are at least $711 ($83 over her monthly spousal maintenance of $628, which reflects a cost-of-living adjustment).  Wife’s monthly expenses, however, do not include clothing, food, and other basic needs.  As a result, wife uses the local food shelf and receives heating assistance in winter.  We have grave doubts as to whether the district court’s finding regarding wife’s monthly expenses accurately reflects the parties’ marital standard of living.  See generally Peterka v. Peterka, 675 N.W.2d 353, 358 (Minn. App. 2004) (noting that “[t]he purpose of a maintenance award is to allow the recipient and the obligor to have a standard of living that approximates the marital standard of living as closely as is equitable under the circumstances). 

In contrast, the district court found that husband’s reasonable monthly expenses of $1,650 include rent, utilities, food, clothing, laundry, medical and dental insurance, a $350 car payment, car insurance, entertainment, personal allowances, and debts.[2]  Based on husband’s monthly expenses, including the maintenance obligation of $600, he experiences a monthly budget shortfall of $82.  With the spousal-maintenance award of $600, wife experiences a monthly budget shortfall of $83 on a budget that does not include expenses for food and clothing.[3]

Wife does not contest the district court’s finding that the parties’ daughter does not defray any of the household expenses.  Rather, wife argues that the absence of a contribution to the household expenses by the parties’ daughter does not establish that wife has voluntarily limited her income.  The uncontroverted evidence in the record indicates that, because the parties’ daughter had not found employment at the time of the hearing, she did not have the means to contribute to the household expenses.  On this record, the failure of the parties’ daughter to defray household expenses due to a lack of employment does not support the district court’s conclusion that wife has voluntarily limited her income by not seeking rent or other reimbursement from the parties’ daughter.  Moreover, the $711 in expenses for wife does not include expenses attributable to the parties’ daughter. 

The district court also concluded that wife voluntarily limited her income by failing to seek Social Security benefits.  But the record does not demonstrate that wife qualifies for benefits and is voluntarily choosing to forego them.  As a form of public assistance unrelated to past earnings, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits   “constitute a safety net to protect indigent persons.”  Becker County Human Servs. v. Peppel, 493 N.W.2d 573, 574 (Minn. App. 1992) (quotations omitted).  SSI benefits are awarded pursuant to subchapter XVI of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C. §§1381-1383f (2000).  To be eligible for SSI benefits, a person must be aged, blind, or disabled and have income below a certain level.  42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(1).[4]  Thus, even if we assume that wife qualifies as disabled under the Social Security Act for purposes of receiving SSI benefits, see 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A)-(J) (defining “disabled” for SSI purposes), disability alone is insufficient to establish SSI eligibility.

A disabled person’s income is a “major factor” in determining eligibility for SSI.  20 C.F.R. § 416.1100 (2003).   Income includes anything received in cash or in kind that can be used to meet food, clothing, and shelter needs.  20 C.F.R. § 416.1102 (2003).  Such income may be either earned or unearned.  42 U.S.C. § 1382a(a).  And for purposes of SSI eligibility, unearned income includes spousal maintenance payments.  42 U.S.C. § 1382a(a)(2)(A); 20 C.F.R. § 416.1121(b) (2003).  “When Congress defined unearned income as ‘support and maintenance furnished in cash or in kind,’ [42 U.S.C.] § 1382a(a)(2)(A), it contemplated that a reduced entitlement would be paid to those whose essential needs were being satisfied by other means.”   Antonioli v. Harris, 624 F.2d 78, 80 (9th Cir. 1980).  Thus, wife’s SSI eligibility is affected by her spousal-maintenance income, and SSI benefits are not intended to supplant that income.  In other words, the intended purpose of receiving SSI benefits is not to minimize wife’s need for spousal maintenance or the size of her maintenance award.  The district court’s decision to decrease the spousal-maintenance award because of wife’s failure to seek Social Security benefits is based on two assumptions that are without factual support: (1) wife would qualify for SSI benefits; and (2) such benefits would result in a net increase in wife’s income, thereby decreasing her need for the monthly spousal-maintenance award of $600.

Because the record does not support the district court’s conclusion that wife is voluntarily limiting her income, we conclude that the district court abused its discretion in basing its decision to reduce husband’s maintenance obligation on this ground.  See Dobrin v. Dobrin, 569 N.W.2d 199, 202 n.3 (Minn. 1997) (abuse of discretion in setting maintenance when factual findings are unsupported by record or law is improperly applied); Rutten v. Rutten, 347 N.W.2d at 50 (abuse of discretion when district court resolves the matter in a manner that is against logic and facts in record).  Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s reduction of wife’s spousal-maintenance award.





[1]  The record establishes that wife’s monthly budget is $711.  The district court’s finding that the monthly budget submitted is $771 appears to be a clerical error.

[2]  These monthly expenses are approximately $100 more than husband’s monthly expenses in 1999.

[3]  The record establishes that husband has failed to take his spousal-maintenance tax deduction, which, according to the district court’s estimate, would effectively reduce his monthly maintenance obligation from $600 to $450.  We note that this reduction in monthly maintenance of $150, which is greater than the $100 monthly reduction that the district court awarded, would eliminate husband’s monthly budget shortfall without reducing wife’s monthly spousal-maintenance award.

[4]  An eligible person without an eligible spouse must have income “other than income excluded pursuant to section 1382a(b) of this title . . . at a rate of not more than $1,752” for a calendar year.  42 U.S.C. § 1382(a)(1)(A).