Is a 51 year old woman who is a registered sex offender and who was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted of seven counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor under 16 and three counts of oral copulation of a minor under 18 entitled to spousal support? Yes, said California’s Court of Appeal in a Family Law decision issued today.
The unanimous decision by the panel of three justices reversed a Santa Barbara judge who said that the woman had waited too long to ask for spousal support, also known as alimony.
In this case, known as Marriage of Schu, the parties entered into a written agreement that was filed with the court while the wife was still in prison. The judgment said “[t]he Court in the parties’ dissolution action will reserve jurisdiction to award long-term spousal [support] until Wife’s release from incarceration, either parties’ death, the remarriage of Wife, the cohabitation of Wife, or modification of termination by further order of the Court, whichever occurs first”.
The wife, who was doing her time at the State Prison at Chowchilla, filed a request for long-term spousal support on March 8, 2013, five weeks before her release from prison and four weeks after the judgment had been entered by the court. The hearing was set for April 17, three days after the wife’s release. Due to delays, the hearing was not heard until July 26, three months after the wife’s release from prison.
At the hearing, the judge said, “I really do think I don’t have jurisdiction to address the spousal support issue anymore because of the judgment providing the specific conditions under which that jurisdiction would end and I think it’s ended”.
Normally, in a close case involving interpretation of language, you would think the person with the bad facts — i.e., the bad person, the child molester — would lose. Why should the husband have to support her? But as the appeals court stated, “[t]he reasonable interpretation of this language, borne out by the circumstances and the parties’ conduct, is that the hearing was to be held within a reasonable time after release”. The justices added, “[I]f jurisdiction terminated the moment Genise was released from prison, it is doubtful the trial court could have conducted the hearing. The time between notice of entry of judgment and Genise’s release was a mere nine weeks. Genise would have had to know the time of her release in advance and provide for her transportation to the court”.
The wife was also helped by the fact that she had a long-term marriage in that she had been married for about 23 years. (In California, a marriage over ten years is presumptively a long-term marriage.) This is because Family Code section 4336 provides that a California divorce court retains spousal support jurisdiction indefinitely after a lengthy marriage, unless an agreement or order specifically provides otherwise, and in this case the stipulated judgment did not specifically provide otherwise.
This case was certified for publication, which means even though it was issued by a Court of Appeal in a different part of California, the precedent created is binding on trial courts throughout the Golden State.
So now the trial judge will have to have a new hearing and decide how much, if any, spousal support to award the wife, and the argument that she waited too long will not work. If support is denied, the judge will have to come up with another reason. Stay tuned.