LAUREN ST. CYR
MARK ST. CYR
Wright, Arthur, Reed, JJ.
In a divorce judgment, the Circuit Court for Harford County ordered Mark St. Cyr ("Husband") to pay child support and rehabilitative alimony to Lauren St. Cyr ("Wife"). The court also granted Wife use and possession of the family home for several months.
On appeal, Wife challenges the court's factual findings as to her potential income, the court's exercise of discretion in determining the amount and duration of alimony, and the court's exercise of discretion in determining the time limit for use and possession of the family home. Although we leave many of the court's findings and rulings undisturbed, we vacate the judgment in part and remand so that the court may re-evaluate the alimony award.
Factual and Procedural Background
A. The Marriage and its Demise
The parties to this case were married in 1994. Before the marriage, Wife worked as an assistant branch manager at a surety company, earning around $45, 000 per year. She stopped working in 1995, upon the birth of the family's first child, a daughter. Another daughter was born in 1997, followed by a son in 1999. Wife served as primary caregiver to the children.
During most of the marriage, Husband served as the family's sole wage earner. In the first year of the marriage, he earned less than Wife. His income gradually increased as his career in sales and distribution progressed. In 2000, Husband started working in a management position.
During the marriage, Husband and Wife consumed nearly all of their household income, saving little. They lived in a house that tested the extent of their means. In 2004, they nearly lost the home to foreclosure. Wife did not return to work at that time. Instead, Husband sold the house to a lender, rented it from the lender for two years, and repurchased it at a substantially higher price. When he fell delinquent on mortgage payments again in 2010, he negotiated a loan modification that allowed him to make payments at a temporary interest rate of two percent, subject to sharp annual increases beginning in March 2015.
In 2009, Wife was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. She underwent chemotherapy and bone marrow extraction, and her cancer went into remission. Husband provided little emotional support during this time of medical need.
In the fall of 2011 at the latest, Husband started an extramarital affair. Wife learned of the relationship, but agreed to attempt to reconcile with Husband after he denied that the relationship was sexual. For several months, Husband lived in the family home on many nights, while secretly spending other nights with another woman at an apartment that he had rented.
Wife eventually learned of her husband's deception. In September 2012, the parties separated permanently. Husband did not return to the family home.
B. The Divorce Action
On July 1, 2013, Husband filed a complaint for absolute divorce in the Circuit Court for Harford County. He asked the court to grant him sole legal custody and shared physical custody of the parties' minor children.
Wife counterclaimed for divorce, sole legal custody and primary physical custody of the minor children, alimony, child support, equitable division of marital property, use and possession of the family home and family-use personal property, and counsel fees.
Adopting a master's report and recommendation, the circuit court issued a pendente lite order that granted Wife use and possession of the family home and required Husband to continue paying the mortgage (approximately $2, 850 per month). In addition, the order required Husband to pay alimony and child support for the two minor children.
Wife later amended and supplemented her pleadings, asking the court to transfer title of the family home to her and to declare the couples' oldest child to be a destitute adult child for support purposes.
C. Trial in the Circuit Court
The court heard the case on five trial days between September 22, 2014, and October 6, 2014. Much of the testimony concerned the parties' financial circumstances.
At the time of trial, Husband was 46 years old with an extensive work history. He earned in excess of $200, 000 in annual salary and bonuses in an executive or management position. On the other hand, Wife, at the age of 47, had not been employed for nearly two decades. A central issue was whether she was capable of re-entering the workforce.
Husband testified that Wife had decided that she did not want to return to work after the birth of their first child and that he had supported that decision while the children were young. According to Husband, he asked his wife to contribute financially when they faced the threat of foreclosure in 2004, but she maintained that she was "never going back to work." He testified that, at other times when he brought up the possibility of bringing a second income to the household, she would respond that there was "no way" that she would resume working. He admitted that his wife sometimes slept excessively when she was experiencing health problems during the later years of the marriage. He had observed that she had always been able to wake up in the morning "if she needed to" to attend to the needs of the children.
According to Wife, she and her husband mutually decided that she would be a stay-at-home mother so that the family could follow Husband's career path. During cross-examination, Wife stated that she believed that Husband should continue to bear sole financial responsibility for the family after the separation: "That is what we signed up for. . . . That is his responsibility[.]" She added: "From the very onset of the marriage, the agreement that Mark and I set forth was Mark would be the person who was the breadwinner in the family, that was extremely clear, and I would be the one raising the children." When counsel asked more specifically about her future expectations of support, she answered: "I expect Mark to fulfill the duties that he said that he would twenty years ago."
Regarding her physical condition, Wife testified that she began to experience chronic fatigue around 2007. At the time of her cancer diagnosis in 2009, she also tested positive for mononucleosis, which she characterized as "the cause of the fatigue." Wife testified that, after learning of her husband's affair, she underwent therapy at the instructions of her doctors. She reported that she was currently taking an antidepressant, a mood stabilizer, thyroid medication, and blood pressure medication. She stated that her cancer was in remission at the time, but that she suffered from neuropathy in her hands and feet as a result of her chemotherapy.
At the time of trial, Wife did not believe that she would be able to resume employment. She said that she was still physically weak and continued to experience episodes of depression. Regarding her daily functioning, she stated: "I have to pace myself. I know I can't go out for twelve hours in a day. I know I can't do a ten hour day."
In response to a question about her future employment capacity, she answered:
It depends on what my doctors suggest. . . . I'm in constant contact with them. I still have a few months left in remission. Right now, based on the limited amount of energy that I have to pace myself during the day, I don't believe that I would be able to perform a full day's work that would be required by any employer. So, I would have to consult with my doctors. Maybe in November this year we'll see if things have improved healthwise.
Nonetheless, Wife testified that her fatigue had not prevented her from involving herself heavily in her children's activities. She opined that her level of activity outside the home was "a little different than working full-time" and not "a twelve hour day, " which she said was "typically how long you work when you're working in a corporate world." She stated that she needed "to pace [her]self" and she "wish[ed] that [she] had more energy to do some things even better."
When asked whether she was capable of working full-time, Wife responded: "Not at this time." She said that her ability to work part-time "would depend" on the circumstances, but she believed that she "wouldn't be able to do anything that has to do with standing up or typing." Regarding her intention to provide financial support to her children, she answered: "It would depend on my health in the future. I don't know."
During closing arguments, counsel for Husband asked the court to impute income of $400 per week to Wife for the purpose of calculating alimony and child support. Counsel argued that Wife's testimony "made it abundantly clear [that] she [had] no intention to return to work" and that the court should not simply accept her self-reported opinion that she was physically unable to work. He pointed out that she had made no efforts to seek employment or to increase her employability and that she produced "no medical evidence" of documentation of her alleged ongoing symptoms. Counsel for Husband argued that, although it would be unreasonable to expect a 47-year-old woman with a 20-year employment gap to "go to work in some office and make $50, 000.00 a year, " the court should conclude that she could at least "get a job for forty hours a week making $10.00 an hour."
During closing, counsel for Wife asserted that she had not worked for two decades "by the agreement of the parties." Her attorney commented that, under her existing circumstances, "[s]he is at $10.00 an hour and [Husband] has admitted that." Her attorney argued that she was "entitled to indefinite alimony" because "her history of medical problems and . . . her current physical limitations" meant that she could "never hope to achieve a level of self-sufficiency that will enable her to obtain the standard of living the parties would have."
D. Judgment of the Circuit Court
On February 25, 2015, the circuit court issued a thoughtful and comprehensive memorandum opinion setting forth its rulings on each of the claims raised by the parties.
First, the court granted the divorce on the ground of Husband's adultery, finding that the allegations of adultery had been admitted and proven.
Wife received sole legal custody of the parties' two minor children. The court granted Husband's request for visitation rights with the parties' son, who was then a 15-year-old high school sophomore. Husband had not requested a visitation order regarding the minor daughter, a 17-year-old high school senior who was estranged from her father.
The court granted Wife use and possession of the family home until February 2016 and ordered Husband to continue paying the mortgage, taxes, and insurance during that period. The court directed that a trustee be appointed to sell the house as soon as possible after February 1, 2016, ...