Alimony, also known as spousal support, is one of the most controversial topics in many divorce cases. If a partner makes sacrifices to support the other person’s career or gives up their own career to raise children, they may be entitled to support after the termination of the marriage. However, a growing number of states have started to phase out long-term alimony, choosing instead to award alimony for a set period of time that gives the lower-earning spouse time to advance their education and get to a higher earning level. In the case of James Lueck and Karen Lueck, alimony was awarded for a period of 10 years.
The End of a 29-Year Marriage
After 29 years of marriage, James and Karen Lueck divorced in 2014. Their original divorce degree required James to pay his ex-wife $10,000 per month for a period of 10 years—unless she remarried. If Karen was to remarry, James could terminate his alimony payments.
In 2017, Karen Lueck had a religious ceremony with her partner. The pastor at First Congregational church in Traverse City united the couple in a religious marriage ceremony. There was no marriage license. Though Karen and her partner said vows and exchanged rings, they did not legalize the marriage.
James Lueck took issue with this. He called his ex-wife’s actions manipulative and fraudulent, claiming that she intentionally chose to avoid a legal ceremony to maintain alimony payments. He alleged that she was trying to present herself as married to the community. James took the dispute to court.
The Court’s Initial Decision
Initially, Judge Lisa Gorcyca agreed with James Lueck’s interpretation of his alimony obligations. She terminated alimony payments because Karen Lueck’s actions appeared “to defraud the court and circumvent the parties’ consent judgment of divorce.” James subsequently stopped making alimony payments to his ex-wife.
The Legal Definition of “Marriage”
This entire court battle comes down to one question: what is the legal definition of marriage? Karen Lueck clearly believed that only a legally-binding marriage could end her ex-husband’s alimony payments, while James Lueck and Judge Gorcyca felt that a religious ceremony met the court’s definition of “remarriage.” After Judge Gorcyca’s initial decision to end James Lueck’s alimony payments, Karen Lueck appealed the decision with the Michigan Court of Appeals.
Going Through Appeals
The Court of Appeals determined that Judge Gorcyca made an error in judgment when she decided that Karen Lueck’s religious ceremony met the legal definition of marriage. Per the Court of Appeals, the term “remarriage” is crystal-clear: it refers only to marriages in which the couple gets a marriage license as required by state law. They reinstated James Lueck’s alimony obligations. Assuming Karen Lueck does not legally remarry, alimony payments must now resume for the rest of the 10-year period following their divorce.
What This Means for Others Paying Alimony
Public opinion is divided over this case. Some believe that the decision illuminates the separation of church and state, since a religious ceremony does not meet the requirements for a legal marriage. Others feel that the decision is disrespectful to high-earning spouses who are forced to continue financially supporting their ex-partners long after divorce.
This decision is not a substantial deviation from previous court decisions regarding alimony. In essence, a religious ceremony that isn’t followed by a legal marriage certificate is the same as a long-term relationship that never progresses to marriage. While some alimony agreements allow for the termination of payments when the ex-spouse begins living with another partner, many specify that payments will only be terminated early if the other party remarries. This Michigan Court of Appeals decision simply reaffirms what has been clearly laid out in divorce judgments across the country.