Appellate Division Addresses Impact of a Spouse's Disability on a Support Determination

On May 5, 2020, the Appellate Division in Gormley v. Gormley concluded that when the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) has determined that if a party is permanently disabled, a presumption of disability is established and the burden shifts to the opposing party to refute that presumption. In other words, when the SSA declares you an individual that is permanently disabled and eligible for Social Security Disability (“SSD”) benefits, such a finding can automatically be considered tantamount to a finding by the SSA that the person is disabled and cannot earn the same amount of money that they previously earned. Please note that the this case addressed a situation of a spouse’s permanent, rather than temporary disability, which could present different legal issues for analysis.

Notably, however, the Appellate Division’s determination in Gormley does not mean that a person cannot work or earn any money at all – the SSA’s own definitions and regulations advise that a permanently disabled person may work and earn up to a maximum amount of income each year while still qualifying for benefits and maintaining his/her disabled status. Rather, it means that a court has the discretion to consider a disabled individual’s potential ability to earn additional income under SSA regulation, if possible. Nonetheless, it is now the opposing party’s burden to contest the presumption that the disabled person is, in fact, disabled and, therefore, unable to work at the same capacity that he/she did previously.

In Gormley, the parties were married in 2000 and had one child in 2004. In 2012, the parties separated when Susan (defendant/wife/mother) and the child moved in with her parents. In 2015, Joseph (plaintiff/husband/father) filed for Divorce.

At the time the parties were married, Susan already suffered from Multiple Sclerosis (“MS”). In 2002, the SSA determined she was disabled, and for that reason, defendant was unemployed ever since. Despite such determination, however, the trial court income to Susan. In reaching this decision, the trial judge found that Susan received $2,023 monthly from Social Security; nevertheless, the judge imputed income to Susan because she opined “no medical testimony to that effect was presented.” According to the judge, Susan’s behavior during trial did not support “her claim of her deficiencies and difficulties such that they would prevent her from being employed”; Susan’s unemployment was deemed voluntary because “there [was] not evidence that she was ever told by any medical professional that she should not work; Susan was not fully disabled because she drove her daughter to various locations; and, ultimately, Susan did not demonstrate “the sedentary lifestyle of a disabled person” and, therefore, was capable of working at last 20 hours per week.

The Appellate Division reversed the trial court’s determination based on a finding that it misapplied the controlling law. In Susan’s case, the trial court held that even though she was adjudicated disabled, she was still required to provide more evidence to the court “than simply the SSD award letter itself to prove his/her case.” According to the Appellate Division, this was incorrect. Susan’s SSA disability status (a/k/a her letter declaring her disabled from SSA and her receipt of SSD) resulted in a presumption of an inability to work and, therefore, the burden shifted to Joseph to prove that an income should be imputed to Susan. Hence, the Appellate Division found that it was an error for the trial judge to have looked to Susan for other evidence that she was disabled, or to base her findings about Susan’s disability on her observations of Susan at trial as Joseph never rebutted the presumption of Susan’s disability as required.

This case impacts upon many litigants who have been declared disabled by the SSA who are uncertain as to how such a declaration may impact upon his or her support obligation.

If you have any questions about how a disability may impact on support, or any other family law matters, please contact Ziegler, Zemsky & Resnick to get the proper assistance you deserve.

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